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.

const_myths
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*

Review: The Spirit of ’74, How the American Revolution Began by Ray and Marie Raphael

ERW Book Reviews (1)Why did Boston’s act of political vandalism lead to a British military expedition against small towns in Massachusetts sixteen months later?

How, exactly did evolving political tensions result in actual warfare?

How did Lexington and Concord become, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the shot heard around the world.”

The Spirit of '74, How the American Revolution Began by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael
The Spirit of ’74, How the American Revolution Began by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael

In a much-needed narrative, historians Ray and Marie Raphael fill in the movement toward those first shots at Lexington and Concord. In a primary source driven, easy to read history of that year before and leading up to 1775. However, “our story slows, pausing at additional markers that are often bypassed or slighted” (x).

Therein lies “only in a full telling is war a plausible outcome” (x).

The Raphael duo fluidly walks the reader through the build-up to that fateful April 1775 day. The book sheds light on developments in towns and counties across the colony of Massachusetts. A timeline in the beginning provides a good resource to remember the important dates as you read.

With the British response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, committed activists perceived that Britain had handed them a blueprint for disenfranchisement (44). What would be seen in the colony as the Coercive Acts, which, among other changes nullified the Charter of 1691 which colonists in Massachusetts held as sacrosanct. When the news of what the British government had did, which arrived in the harbor of Boston in May 1774 until the following April 1775, “resistance would mount, coalesce, and manifest itself in armed, relentless rebellion (44).

That coalescing would resemble an accordion, with Boston being one end and the countryside of Massachusetts the other end of the instrument. Both ends would reverberate the bellows as ideas, exchanges of opinions, passive and aggressive action, all marred the intervening months of 1774. Until as Abigail Adams wrote many months before April 1775, the”flame is kindled and like lightening it catches from soul to soul” (192).

The Raphael duo capture what the farmers in Berkshire set in motion, in accordance with capturing the attitude of townspeople in Worcester, Massachusetts at the same time. These various local uprisings, which put an emphasis on peaceful activities coalesced into the call for committees and eventually into the need for the Provincial Congress. This Congress acted as the de-facto governing body of Massachusetts in response to British measures to subdue and punish the intransigent rebels.

When viewed through the prism of the preceding years, what happened on the green of Lexington or the North Bridge at Concord becomes clearer as the pivot in which the simmering resentment in Massachusetts finally boiled over and led to the “shot heard around the world.”

Every once in a while a monograph is written that fills a necessary void in the field of early American Revolutionary history. This history is definitely one of those as it fills in that critical, yet overlooked, time period in the build-up to the fighting between British-American colonists and the redcoats that represented the mother country.

One cannot hope to understand the events of 1775 and beyond without knowing how the colonists of Massachusetts, so many that have unfortunately been lost to the passing of time, began the protests that led to independence, beginning in the years before.

Or as the authors more succinctly state; “and so begins a story we know” (214).

 

Book Information:

Publisher: The New Press, New York, NY

Pages: 219 pages plus acknowledgements, bibliography, index, and, timeline