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

By Garrett Epps

In 1987, E.L. Doctorow celebrated the Constitution's bicentennial by way of examining it. "It is 5 thousand phrases lengthy yet reads like fifty thousand," he stated. distinct criminal student Garrett Epps--himself an award-winning novelist--disagrees. it is approximately 7,500 phrases. And Doctorow "missed a great deal of excessive rhetoric, many literary tropes, or even a hint of, if no longer wit, at the least irony," he writes. american citizens may perhaps venerate the structure, "but all too seldom is it read."

In American Epic, Epps takes us via an entire examining of the Constitution--even the "boring" parts--to in achieving an appreciation of its energy and a holistic knowing of what it says. during this publication he seeks to not offer a definitive interpretation, yet to hear the language and think of its which means. He attracts on 4 modes of interpreting: scriptural, criminal, lyric, and epic. The Constitution's first 3 phrases, for instance, sound spiritual--but Epps reveals them to be extra aspirational than prayer-like. "Prayers are addressed to an individual . . . both a mundane king or a divine lord, and nice care is taken to call the addressee. . . . This does the opposite. The speaker is 'the people,' the phrases addressed to the area at large." He turns the second one modification right into a poem to light up its ambiguity. He notices oddities and omissions. The structure lays out principles for presidential appointment of officials, for instance, yet now not removing. may still the Senate approve every one firing? Can it withdraw its "advice and consent" and strength a resignation? And he demanding situations himself, as visible in his outstanding dialogue of the security of Marriage Act (DOMA) in gentle of Article four, which orders states to offer "full religion and credits" to the acts of different states.

Wry, unique, and astounding, American Epic is a scholarly and literary travel de strength.

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Extra resources for American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution

Example text

Under this provision, Congress governs an empire of military installations around the country; but the “seat of government” power gave rise, in time, to the thriving city of Washington, DC, which is not a fort or stockade but a complete civilian city-state. It exists uneasily within the Union as a federal enclave, as completely under congressional control as is Elmendorf Air Force Base or the island of Guam, with no rights of congressional representation. America since 1787 has acquired a vast continental empire that was not part of the United States when the Constitution was framed.

Would the Constitution have established an order of precedence, a sort of First Family of states, with others implicitly inferior? Would it have spoken as powerfully as it does to the people of Vermont, then independent, or Kentucky or Ohio, then being formed, or Louisiana or Oregon, undreamt of? The words “we the people” have a contemporary sound; in 1787 they were positively futuristic. The words, “we the people of the states” would instead have been archaic on the day of publication and would emphasize to any contemporary reader the historical distance between the Framing and today.

If one interpretation of the document will further these national and public purposes more fully than another, we have no obligation to be “neutral” between them, or to finely parse the grammar of other constitutional provisions considered in isolation from the entire text. The purposes laid out in the Preamble are broad and general; but they are not meaningless. They might constitute for constitutional interpretation what Aristotle called “special topics” peculiar to a specific field of discourse, mental “places” that orators and advocates could visit to find subjects for their speeches and writings, means of persuasion directed at the particular audience.

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