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The Constitution Is More Than a Document — It’s a Conversation

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Amar starts his narrative slightly earlier than most histories of the American Revolution, in 1760, when a merchant ship arrived with the news that elderly King George II had died. From there, he surveys high points of the era that are staples of American history class — like the Boston Tea Party — and others that are less so, like Paxton’s Case, a dispute over the arcane issue of “writs of assistance,” which helped colonial authorities prevent smuggling.

Amar emphasizes the conversations surrounding these critical moments. The Colonies’ break with Britain was a result not merely of acts of resistance and military battles, but also of a steadily building, verbally expressed consensus among the people — in speeches, pamphlets, newspapers, even cartoons — in favor of independence. The building blocks of this conversation ranged from the tendentious, like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” to the merely logistical, like the letter of the Virginia House of Burgesses proposing the formation of a network of correspondence among all the colonial assemblies.

Amar presents his cast of characters, who range from the iconic to the obscure, not only as soldiers, convention delegates and elected officials, but also as communicators. He notes that five of the six main founders — Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — were “newspaper scribblers.” And George Washington, he says, was one of the great letter writers of his age and an “outstanding listener.” Indeed, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington was “the listener in chief.”

If willingness to converse is one of the greatest virtues in Amar’s telling, refusing to is among the worst sins — and blunders. He notes that King George III fueled the Revolutionary fires by his unwillingness to listen to his American subjects. The king did not try to talk with Franklin, who lived in London for many years, or other American leaders, to seek common ground. When colonists wrote him a polite petition, he would not let it be read to him.

For all of his insightful, and at times surprising, reflections on the founders, Amar is no exponent of the great man theory of history, at least when it comes to the key documents of early America. He strongly suggests that America as a whole — through its great national conversation — did more to draft the Declaration of Independence than Jefferson, and more to write the Constitution than Madison. Most of the Constitution, he says, “simply followed from the logic” of the American constitutional conversation from 1764 to 1787.

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