Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: 'American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution' by Garrett Epps

Review by David Wineberg

Exceptional guided tour

Like an atom, the USA is held together by tension among opposing, if not repelling forces. This natural state of affairs is dealt with in the constitution, which recognizes three such conflicts: between the federal and state governments, between Congress and the president, and between government and the people. Along the way it attempts to clarify all kinds of situations, but the imprecision of the framers making it up as a they went along and the very nature and imprecision of language itself necessitates a guide to talk us through it. Epps conducts this tour with verve, style, hints of cynicism and sarcasm, and a lot of direct experience.

Many of us have read the constitution, and find it fairly clear. But when it is challenged, the nuances of the words, the syntax and the punctuation take on grave significance beyond their heft. Epps offers context, giving us the many sides of arguments, and with the backstory of the challenges – social, legislative and judicial – that forced the issues. He usually doesn’t take sides, and calls himself out when he does. He likes to compare the writing style to poetry, and divides the modes of reading the constitution into four: scriptural, lyric, legal and epic. This is not something the average American would consider when reading the Bill of Rights, but then they wouldn’t normally be guided by a constitutional lawyer and scholar. It makes the world of difference.

Epps calls this fine parsing, and that manages to understate the case. The difference between commas and semi-colons, between sentences and subordinate clauses, and why the framers said it one way when (if that’s what they really meant) they could have been clear and precise about it in fewer words – results in a de facto 28th Amendment – mandating lifetime employment for lawyers.

American Epic is a mercifully easy read, and puts a lot of what’s wrong in perspective. It is an essential service in an era when the judiciary is remaking society in its own image and Congress is incapable of agreeing on the time of day.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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