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Back in the Day

Dummies’ Guides for U.S.

Take your choice between two annotated guides to the U.S. Constitution.

Book Cover Right about now you may be experiencing a distinct feeling of dread and anxiety as you realize that whatever grasp you had of the fundamental principles of governance as expressed in the hallowed document known as the United States Constitution, which you might have mastered in your long-gone years of schooling, have been worn away by the sands of time (or, to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse, the moronizing effects of consumerism).

Considering the noise emanating from various quarters of our body politic, this may be a good time for refreshment of this vital information.

Fear not. As I also suffer from this selfsame deficit, I have found some remedy—mainly two volumes specifically designed to abate this nationwide contagion. Stanford University mentor Jack Rakove has assembled The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (Harvard University Press) with over 100 of his annotations and an introductory essay.

Rakove offers a salutary reader’s note:
The very idea of preparing a concise annotated edition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is almost a contradiction in terms. Both documents have a rich and complicated history that covers both their origins and their subsequent interpretation. To do justice to this richness and complexity in a volume of this size is so obviously impossible that the annotator has no choice but to impose a strong and highly selective voice on the individual entries that accompany the text. In finding that voice, I have tried to combine and balance the historian’s natural fascination with the origins of clauses with the modern legal commentator’s and concerned citizen’s interest in their evolving interpretation. The result will probably satisfy neither historians nor constitutional lawyers, but hopefully it will engage the lay readers and students for whom these annotations have really been prepared.
Journalist Seth Lipsky, a founding editor of the now defunct New York Sun (which, if you were familiar with, should give you a sense of his point of view) has his own offering: The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide (Basic Books). Lipsky’s tome includes 300 annotations using his view of history, case-law citation, and current circumstances to unpack the U.S.’s fundamental urtext.
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