Words that define what it is to be American

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Words that define what it is to be American

When the Constitution of the United States was adopted in 1789, one hot-button issue was whether the government could force innkeepers and homeowners to give room and board to armed soldiers. Memories were fresh of abuses by the British colonial government, and when the Constitution as passed did not address the issue, it was promptly rectified. Amendment III of the Bill of Rights protects Americans from having their homes occupied by soldiers in peacetime, or in wartime, without compensation.
Well, it just goes to show you what a funny, outdated document the Constitution is, full of solutions to 18th-century problems. It also forbids the creation of titles of nobility, like duke or count. Most embarrassingly, it counts slaves as three-fifths of a person for census enumeration. Yet Americans have lived with it all these years, and most Americans, asked to name their sources of national pride, will cite the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. There must be something good about it.
There is, as Linda R. Monk demonstrates in her admirably concise and lucid study, “The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution.” In 263 pages brightened with vignettes and pictures, she walks us from the Preamble (“We the People . . .”) to Amendment XXVII, limiting congressional pay raises. She provides historical context and shows how certain themes take surprising twists over time. “States’ rights” ― the doctrine that individual states are sovereign against the national government in certain spheres ― is now thought of as the basis of the Southern defense of slavery. It was, but before that it was invoked by Northern states upset at the loss of their trade with Britain during the War of 1812.
Ms. Monk gives all partisans their due. On school desegregation, she quotes at length a member of the Mississippi White Citizens Council. On Amendment II, central to the gun-control debate, she lets both the liberal columnist Pete Hamill and the National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston have their say. On whether the Constitution should be interpreted strictly or elastically, she offers passages from Clarence Thomas and Lawrence Tribe. This book should be in every home, an essential reference tool. As Ms. Monk has written, “It is the Constitution that defines us as Americans ― not geography or ethnicity or even the flag. The Constitution is the words we live by, and when we stop living by those words, we stop being Americans.”

by Hal Piper
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