Review: Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get It Right by Ray Raphael

Review by Jim Howell

Constitutional Myths by Ray Raphael is a well written, if potentially controversial book that takes a fairly in-depth look at eight constitutional interpretations that are currently popular political positions. The 301-page monograph provides an excellent, brief synopsis for each topic, which is referred to as a “myth”. Each constitutional “myth” has a more elaborate explanation after the initial brief summary with a significant amount of supporting primary source evidence.

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Constitutional Myths by Ray Raphael

Raphael, a scholar of the Founding Fathers, has written extensively on the early United States and his frequent footnotes often refer to his previous research and primary documents from the period in question. Of particular note is his constant reference to the two most extensive constitutional documents, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention and The Federalist Papers.

From the very beginning of the book, Raphael makes it clear that the Constitutional Convention set out to remedy the defects in the Articles of Confederation. Some of these defects were the inability of the central government to tax, draft citizens to form an army, or pass a variety of laws. In short order, this lead to a number of problems in the states and in all likelihood, the demise of a number of states to European powers. The pendulum that had swung to a severe distrust of a distant, powerful government was on its way back to establishing a strong government that could look out for the interests of its constituents.

Readers of the more conservative persuasion, who often take a position in favor of small government, impartial Founding Fathers, and originalism, will likely find some of the positions in Constitutional Myths controversial. Despite some of the positions that present day conservatives argue the founding fathers supported, Raphael goes to great lengths to refute those modern day positions and provide the context behind the decisions that were made in 1787.

One of the best examples of this in Constitutional Myths was the chapter devoted to The Federalist Papers. As detailed, The Federalist Papers were written by three authors; James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were written as a tool to advocate for the adoption of the Constitution, not to provide commentary on the finer points of the Constitution. Additionally, a number of the points in The Federalist Papers were made by delegates who did not necessarily agree with the argument they were making, but believed in the compromises of the constitution and were trying to sell the agreement to the necessary number of states for ratification.

Raphael’s treatment of originalism is especially thought provoking given its popularity in today’s political climate. The Constitution and its interpretation have been open for debate from the moment it was ratified. The delegates of the Constitutional Convention created a compromise and it would be a mistake to ascribe any specific meaning to the original intent; as any given founder may have had differing thoughts on what a particular clause might mean. The author makes the astute point that the Constitution is a framework inside which the various states, United States Congress, Supreme Court, and the president are meant to work.

Details:

336 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1595588326

Published by: New Press

 

 

*Jim Howell is a librarian in Northern Virginia and enjoys reading modern military history and science fiction*

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