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Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution by Brion McClanahan

Great as a resource but...

Published in 2012 by Regnery History
197 pages of text, 63 pages of appendices, end notes and an index.

I am torn when it comes to this book, which is the reason for the three star review. I will start with the positives:

-McClanahan gives a thorough, research-based look at the original arguments that went into the creation of the Constitution and is aiming right at the current debates about the proper roles of federal, state and local governments. This is a timely work and points out the obvious truth that our national government is busy doing things in 2012 that it was never designed to do and it has been doing those things for a long time despite the stated fears of many of the Founding Fathers that the government would eventually become bloated and intrusive .

-He points out both sides of the arguments and provides generous quotes that explain how the discussions progressed and eventually resolved themselves. This is a very strong point, in my mind. It is best to let them speak for themselves, especially if they say it well.

Now, the negatives:

-The way the book is organized. The book is designed to be a resource as it discusses the Constitution from the beginning (The Preamble) to the newest amendment, what McClanahan calls "a virtual clause-by-clause discussion of the Constitution" (p. 6). This makes it pretty simple to access the arguments about a certain point of the Constitution. For example, the discussion on Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 "To establish Post Offices and post roads" is placed in its chronological location based on the actual Constitution in Chapter 2 - the Chapter that discusses Congressional powers (pages 57-62). The only problem is, this makes for rather disjointed and often dry reading. The arguments are laid out, but there is no general context as there would be if the book were developed on a more thematic basis. The detailed small arguments are there but the larger philosophies behind the Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments are scattered about throughout and not laid out in a coherent presentation.

Luther Martin (1748-1826)

-The Founding Fathers mentioned are not even briefly introduced so if the reader is not already familiar with important, but less well knows Founders such as Charles Pinckney, Luther Martin or Elbridge Gerry, he or she will remain ignorant of their roles. These men (and many more) are quoted quite often (which is good) but the reader is not told anything about them except that they were involved in this debate. This is not a problem for readers who know all of the men that came together to fashion our Constitution, but will prove to be a difficulty for the new learner who may have been encouraged to pick up this book by the its title.

-Some discussions are ignored completely or merely hinted at (because they are not germane to current day political struggles, I presume). For example, there is a long discussion on pages 16-22 about the ratio of Representatives in the House to the population. Would it be 30,000 to 1? 40,000 to 1? Should there be a cap on the number of Representatives? All of this discussion, but no mention of the three-fifths compromise which resulted in every 5 slaves being counted as 3 persons when it came to counting heads to figure out Congressional seats. Here is Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
 I am not sure why it was left out, but I think it should have been addressed, at least in a cursory manner. It was controversial then, it is controversial now and should be explained.

So, in balance, this book ends up being a strong resource for people who love to argue about things like the finer points of  the concept of "judicial review" and would find it handy to have a book that will provide insight and plenty of quotes. But, as an introduction to these concepts for the novice, it really would be analogous to learning how to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution by Brion McClanahan.

Reviewed on February 11, 2012.

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