Looking at the Constitution

Journey through American history with four books that chart the evolution of the U.S. Constitution to one of its present-day challenges.
Looking at the Constitution
"Signing of the Constitution," 1940, by Howard Chandler Christy. (Public Domain)

Many believe that America’s most important export is the U.S. Constitution, which has been replicated around the world. “The authors of the Constitution understood it would be impossible to rein in a corrupt human being so they simply constructed a government which pitted corruptible human beings against each other,” wrote Alex Madajian on the Fourth Estate website.

Several important books have examined the purpose of the Constitution and some challenges it has faced.

The Beginning

To Rescue the Constitution: George Washington and the Fragile American Experiment Brett Baier
In Bret Baier’s “To Rescue the Constitution: George Washington and the Fragile American Experiment,” we learn that the Constitution’s chief aim as drafted by the Constitutional Convention was to create a government with enough power to act on a national level, but without so much power that fundamental rights would be at risk.

This book offers a dramatic recreation of the Constitutional Convention. It goes beyond politics, offering a glimpse into the Founding Fathers’ personal lives and relationships. Mr. Baier emphasizes George Washington’s role in forming the Constitution. It was his celebrity and personality that brought delegates together to work out a set of laws for everyone.

This is terrific to read because today President Washington faces criticism.

George Washington, the first U.S. president, helped craft the legislation that guided generations of judges, presidents, and politicians. (Public Domain)
George Washington, the first U.S. president, helped craft the legislation that guided generations of judges, presidents, and politicians. (Public Domain)

Adapting to Change

Eric Foner’s “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution” describes how, after the Civil War, four million newly freed people needed a chance at a better life. The hard work of reuniting the country and rebuilding the South was about to begin.

The original Constitution explicitly condoned the practice of slavery and protected slaveholders’ rights. Thus, the Constitution was unsuitable to a new era. However, amendments were allowed for the Constitution’s modification and for a change from a government that allowed slavery to one that ensured freedom.

Three Reconstruction amendments were adopted. The 13th Amendment established that freeing people was not the same thing as abolishing slavery. State laws that had established slavery remained on the books and had to be repealed.

The 14th Amendment addressed citizenship rights and equal protection under the laws for all people.

The 15th Amendment secured for U.S. citizens the right to vote. This right would not be denied or abridged by the federal or state government on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The readers of Mr. Foner’s book gain an understanding of the positive aspects of the amendments. It is heartbreaking to read how quickly the promise of ending slavery and ensuring voting rights for African Americans was thwarted by politics. The author ends by arguing that the battles begun in the 19th century are still waged today.

Maintaining Constitutional Balance

FDR v. Constitution, Burt Solomon
In “FDR v. The Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy,” Burt Solomon describes how, in the wake of his landslide reelection of 1936, President Roosevelt became overconfident that he could get any law he wanted passed. Deeply frustrated by a Supreme Court that had blocked many of his New Deal initiatives, he announced a plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges, allegedly to make it more efficient.

During the previous two years, the high court struck down several key pieces of New Deal legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated unconstitutional authority to the executive branch.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. (Public Domain)
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. (Public Domain)

At the time of President Roosevelt’s reelection, the Court was the most elderly in the nation’s history, averaging age 71. Roosevelt asked Congress to empower him to appoint an additional justice for any member of the court over age 70 who did not retire.  The Constitution was silent about the Court’s size. The seats on the nation’s highest bench had only numbered nine since 1870. That was in the living memory of some of the then-current justices living.

The president’s proposal would have undoubtedly jeopardized constitutional balance within the federal government in favor of the elected branches, by increasing their leverage over the judiciary. Many Americans believed the high court was sacrosanct, and opposed to the Washington plan. For 168 days, the fight over expanding the Supreme Court played out all over America.

Mr. Solomon’s book focuses on this period of time. The book begins in 1937 when 85 guests assembled to partake in the president’s annual dinner for the Supreme Court justices. The dinner was his best chance to hobnob with these secluded individuals.

Mr. Solomon goes into great detail about what happened there and afterwards. The readers will feel like flies on the wall at this dinner. The attention to minute details here and throughout the book make it a real winner.

Roosevelt’s bill was defeated. The institutional integrity of the U.S. Supreme Court was preserved—its size had not been manipulated for political or ideological ends.

In the end, however, President Roosevelt outlasted seven of the nine justices who sat on the bench in 1937. He claimed that though he had lost the battle, he had won the war. In an important sense he had: He had staved off the expected invalidation of the Social Security Act and other laws.

Extraconstitutional Action

Defending the Constitution Behind Enemy Lines, Robert A Green Jr.
Comdr. Robert A. Green’s book “Defending the Constitution behind Enemy Lines: A Story of Hope for Those Who Love Liberty” highlights problems in the U.S. military as he shows how our Constitution is disintegrating before our very eyes.

In 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum directing mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all servicemembers. Mr. Green shared his own account of seeking religious exemption for himself and others from the Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Mr. Green pointed out that the military has felt the effects of a recent value system change. As an institution, the U.S. military was historically a bastion of traditional values, but was moving away from that idea. However, Mr. Green, as an officer, did not feel justified in speaking out about these changes until what he viewed was unconstitutional: the COVID-19 vaccination law.

Officers swear an oath to serve the Constitution and only the Constitution. Enlisted men, on the other hand, swear an obligation to both the Constitution and to follow the lawful orders given to them. Mr. Greene reminds us that joining the military doesn’t mean sacrosanct rights are forfeited. The tactics used to enforce the vaccination order ranged from simply informing service members of the order to comply to discriminatory treatment. Mr. Green went into horrifying detail about the methods used to force compliance.

The American Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. (Public Domain)
The American Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. (Public Domain)

In January 2023, the vaccine mandate was overthrown. Today, Mr. Green and others seek accountability from those who pushed this failed policy on our military. The leaders drained the military of those with the backbone to stand up against forced vaccinations. Others who took the vaccination found themselves sick or dying as a result of unnecessary and untested vaccines. He asserts that trust in basic military mission and leadership had been lost.

Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected] 
Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at [email protected]