Home Entertainment How a decades-long conversation shaped the young United States

How a decades-long conversation shaped the young United States


The voluminous third part of “The Words That Made Us” narrows the conversation to historical actors such as Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Andrew Jackson — the kinds of figures who populate constitutional-law professors’ worlds — as they argued over how to interpret the new document. There are quite illuminating discussions of, for instance, Marshall’s famous opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland concerning the national bank, where Amar shows how the chief justice modeled constitutional interpretation for the nation using the document’s text, structure, history and a pragmatic awareness of the needs of the past and present, in contrast to present-day constitutional originalists’ search for the abstruse “public meaning” of 18th-century words. But the questions resolved here tend to be those such as who was the better constitutional interpreter (Hamilton beats Jefferson and Madison), or who best saw the logic of the new system (Hamilton and Washington), or whether the court invented judicial review in Marbury v. Madison (no). Amar notes that these men argued in a style that might be easily read by the people, but the populace at large, it appears, has dropped out of the conversation entirely.

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