CRF Blog

Annotated Guides to the U.S. Constitution

by Bill Hayes

Want to better understand the U.S. Constitution? The New York Times Book Review has reviewed two new annotated guides to the U.S. Constitution. One, The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, is by Jack N. Rakove, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author (for Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution) and noted historian of the founding era. The other is The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide by Seth Lipsky, former editor of the Jewish Forward and New York Sun. Surprise, surprise, the review finds Lipsky’s book more colorful and Rakove’s more serious. From the review:

Mississippi did not ratify the 13th Amendment, the one that abolished slavery, until 1995. I learned that fact, which calls to mind the adage “better never than late,” from Seth Lipsky’s entertaining annotation of the Constitution. “The Citizen’s Constitution” is a magpie’s miscellany of curiosities. It is governed by a newspaperman’s sensibility, one more interested in conflict and color than order and synthesis.

More interested in text and history than anecdotes and politics, Rakove does not mention Mississippi’s belated ratification of the 13th Amendment, but he does note that the amendment contains the only appearance of the word “slavery” in the Constitution. (The framers used euphemisms, which simultaneously connoted hypocrisy, moral cowardice and embarrassment born of decency.) Rakove adds that the 13th Amendment was the first to give Congress the power of enforcement, which would have seemed superfluous but for a “distrust of the will and capacity of the Supreme Court, an institution still tainted by the memory of the Dred Scott case (1857), to respond judicially to the opposition that emancipation might spark.”

Another recent annotated guide, which I could not find a review of, is The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution: A Fully Annotated Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Amendments, and Selections from The Federalist Papers. It is written by University of Pennsylvania history professor Richard Beeman and author of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.

But you don’t have to buy a book to find annotations on the Constitution. Two excellent ones are online. The U.S. Senate: Constitution of the United States provides the text to the Constitution on one side of the screen and an explanation on the other side. Much, much more detailed is Findlaw: U.S. Constitution, which goes through every clause, citing texts and court cases to explain it.

Finally, if you are just seeking something simple, there is the book Constitution Translated for Kids by Cathy Travis. Written at a fifth grade reading level, the book puts the Constitution on one page and a translation of each clause on the opposite page.

Happy Constitution Day!