A warning: The book is not for the faint-hearted. At 485 pages of text, it presupposes a keen interest in history, government, politics and law. Yet it is filled with thought-provoking material and fun vignettes, suitable for a wide audience.
Amar opens with a lost episode in American history: Senators are battling during the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in March 1868, debating whether Sen.Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio is eligible to vote. As president pro tem of the Senate, Wade is next in line to succeed Johnson if the president is convicted. (The vice presidency is still vacant after Lincoln’s assassination.) Some senators claim it will be “an intolerable conflict of interest” if Wade — who will directly benefit if Johnson is ousted — casts a vote. Yet the text of the Constitution is silent on the matter. Other senators retort that making Wade recuse himself will strip Ohio of one of its two precious votes on this crucial impeachment question.
In the end, the Senate follows history, precedent and a broad view of the Constitution to allow Wade to vote. Not surprisingly, he casts a “guilty” ballot. Yet Johnson escapes conviction by a hair, and the integrity of the Constitution is preserved. Thanks to a recognition that a crabbed reading of the text does not always produce a result that’s consistent with the Constitution as a whole, the spirit of the nation’s fundamental charter remains intact.
Similarly, Amar paints a vivid picture of the women’s suffrage revolution that culminated in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving female citizens the right to vote. He invokes this history — and the admonitions of Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt — to argue that Congress holds unusually broad power to enact laws that protect women’s rights in a variety of areas. This is true, he says, “for the simple reason that the unwritten Constitution is a Constitution of American popular sovereignty” that must be viewed through the lens of the adoption of the 19th Amendment.
Such sparkling stories illustrate that the Constitution needs to be read “as a whole rather than as a jumble of discrete clauses.” The unwritten commands of America’s Constitution, Amar declares, exist side by side with the written text, and “the two stand together and support each other.”