Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions
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Review by Lucas A. Powe, Jr.
Would you like to understand the US Constitution in a little over 200 pleasure-packed pages? Then read Jay Wexler’s The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions. The book is a gem.
Wexler takes ten obscure provisions of the Constitution—for instance, the Weights and Measures Clause (and why we are the only country in the world that isn’t metric), the Letters of Marque and Reprisal Clause (state-sanctioned piracy where the US is the only country in the world that has not formally banned it)—and then ties each to a larger theme about the Constitution: separation of powers; legislative power, executive power, judicial power, qualifications for office, federalism, foreign affairs, equality, liberty, and privacy.
Each chapter follows the same broad format. They begin with one or more interesting current examples of a problem. The clause in question is given a good quick historical brush so that we know why the Framers included it. Wexler then offers two possible constructions of the clause (broad and narrow). A few Supreme Court decisions are briefly summarized. And then Wexler suggests an answer to the examples he began with. That may seem easy, but it is not, and the way Wexler ties everything together is magical. Everyone will learn something new from reading the book.
I should also mention the book is funny. Wexler mentions, Saturday Night Live, NASA, Ellis Island, and Ron Paul among other current examples. Every couple of pages sees humor inserted. Let me offer two examples: (1) “This may come as a surprise, but in the late 1960s, the problem of ‘bottomless’ dancing in California bars and nightclubs had spiraled out of control. Or at least that was the opinion of the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control…. Apparently bottom-less dancing clubs were not nearly as wholesome as one might imagine.” (2) During the American Revolution Virginia put a murderer on trial, but lacking sufficient evidence of his heinous crimes, the state charged him instead with stealing twenty-eight hats and five pounds of twine. “The jury found Philips guilty, and since even hat and twine robbery was punishable by death (sounds like modern-day Texas), he and his fellow ruffians were hanged before the end of the year.” (I should note that when the humor takes on a political charge it comes from the left.)
I have seldom—my guess is never—read a book in my own professional field that in just over 200 pages covers so much ground so well. I know I have never read one that combined information and humor so successfully. While reading Jay Wexler’s The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions I combined two sensations: enjoyment and envy.
Softcover Book : 240 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press ( September 04, 2012 )
Item #: 13-643665
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.25 x 0.6inches
Product Weight: 8.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
Excellent review of the Constitution and American history