Single best book on the US Constitution

Teeming Millions:
As I am nearing the end of my collegiate ordeal, and have not yet embarked upon the ever more treacherous family ordeal, I am in a unique position to take some time to actually learn something.

I am looking for a book on the Constitution of the Untied States. I want a book that is historically and academically rigorous. One that illuminates the original intention and spirit of the Constitution, imports as little as possible, and explicitly spell out precisely what the Constitution actually says, and what it actually means. I want the brutal truth. And I want something that has depth to it.
What I do not want is a book that talks about implications, recent supreme court (or any other court) decisions, alternatives to the Constitution, “living document” garbage, or a 1000 page indictment of the founding fathers as rich, racist, power mongers merely trying to preserve and further develop their own narrow and selfish interest. I got enough of that in college.

Thanks in advance.


Ain't nobody cool in the cooler
Oscar A.

A good place to start is the Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. (assuming you haven’t read this yet). You can read them straight through without any commentary or interpretation from others.

The Federalist papers are very small, limited, and incomplete.

Also, so were the anit-federalist papers.

However, both of them are good, but only a “start” if you want to know what the constitution really means.

Go to a good library, and as to see the private papers of John Addams - it about 40 some volumes, and cover in depth, all of the meanings and debates and the original intent of the Constitution.

For that matter, read any of the private papers of any of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Sam Addams, Hamilton, Mason, Washington, Cox, etc

There is nothing in the Constitution that is unclear, or which can be misinterpreted, whether it be the right to bear arms, states rights, undeclared wars, or whatever. All points were thouroughly discussed, argued, and agreed upon.

There was almost no disagreement on what the founding fathers intended, their disagreements centered on how best to accomplish giving freedom and power to the people.

A standard textbook for Constitutional Law classes is Corwin and Peltason’s Understanding the Constitution. Pricey though, so I’d check your college library.

CC, you’re asking the impossible. The “Constitution of the United States” in any constitutional law sense consists of that legal document and its 27 amendments, plus what courts, erroneously or not, have held that the provisions of it mean, plus some “evolved standards” like the composition of the Cabinet, the seniority rights of members of Congress, and so on.

The Federalist papers and related documents, already discussed by others, would probably be your best source for “original intent” – but anybody with an ounce of sense realizes that a literalistic reading of the text, even guided by “original intent,” is not going to be useful today. Take the Second Amendment – literally read, that means that every convicted violent felon, being still a citizen of the U.S., is entitled to have any sort of weapon he chooses in his cell, since anything else would be an abridgement of his right to bear arms. You can construct similar extremist scenarios for almost any other clause in the document. Courts, for better or worse, read the words of the Constitition as the governing law controlling over statute, regulation, etc., and then determine how to apply it in a particular case before them as the result of an arrest, lawsuit, or whatever. I think there would be unanimity that at times the courts come up with bizarre interpretations of how the words of the Constitution need to be applied – where we’d differ is which times are bizarre.

Make it plural - books.

See for excellent examples.

What Polycarp said. Three times even.

A good example is what was probably the first landmark Supreme Court case, Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison. It was either an act of political genius or a tyrannical usurpation depending on your political leanings at the time. Its premise is old news to us today, that SCOTUS has the power of “judicial review”, and can strike down acts of Congress that are Unconstitutional. However, the Constitutional Convention had voted on whether or not to give the power of judicial review to the Supreme Court…and voted against it. Doesn’t matter that its not spelled out, said Marshall; if the Constitution is going to be the fundamental law of this land the Supreme Court has to have the power of judicial review. Just one example of how intentions for the Constitution differed at the convention, and how Supreme Court decisions have shaped and still do shape the Constitution. I seriously doubt anybody would today argue that judicial review is not a power of the federal courts, regardless of its origin.

Even the Federalist Papers, useful though they may be, are going to be by and large the vigorous arguments of the most vocal of the Federalists and thus partisan. Alexander Hamilton actually argued strongly against the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution in the Federalist. They were only included, against the protests of the Federalists, to appease those who agreed with the Jeffersonians that a federal government was potentially dangerous and needed serious limitations placed on it to safeguard liberties.

My point is, if you truly want to understand Constitutional Law, don’t think of one source of Constitutional interpretation as Canon Law and everthing else as revisionist garbage. There is no one source that can tell you exactly what the Constitution means (except for the thousands of reported Supreme Court cases). Even if you ultimately don’t agree with a certain school of thought, it’s absolutely vital to read about it if you truly want a grasp on the subject and not just a superficial understanding. You can’t understand an argument if you only understand one side of it.