American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution

Overview

In 1987, E.L. Doctorow celebrated the Constitution's bicentennial by reading it. "It is five thousand words long but reads like fifty thousand," he said. Distinguished legal scholar Garrett Epps—himself an award-winning novelist—disagrees. It's about 7,500 words. And Doctorow "missed a good deal of high rhetoric, many literary tropes, and even a trace of, if not wit, at least irony," he writes. Americans may venerate the Constitution, "but all too seldom is it read."

In American...

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American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution

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Overview

In 1987, E.L. Doctorow celebrated the Constitution's bicentennial by reading it. "It is five thousand words long but reads like fifty thousand," he said. Distinguished legal scholar Garrett Epps—himself an award-winning novelist—disagrees. It's about 7,500 words. And Doctorow "missed a good deal of high rhetoric, many literary tropes, and even a trace of, if not wit, at least irony," he writes. Americans may venerate the Constitution, "but all too seldom is it read."

In American Epic, Epps takes us through a complete reading of the Constitution—even the "boring" parts—to achieve an appreciation of its power and a holistic understanding of what it says. In this book he seeks not to provide a definitive interpretation, but to listen to the language and ponder its meaning. He draws on four modes of reading: scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic. The Constitution's first three words, for example, sound spiritual—but Epps finds them to be more aspirational than prayer-like. "Prayers are addressed to someone . . . either an earthly king or a divine lord, and great care is taken to name the addressee. . . . This does the reverse. The speaker is 'the people,' the words addressed to the world at large." He turns the Second Amendment into a poem to illuminate its ambiguity. He notices oddities and omissions. The Constitution lays out rules for presidential appointment of officers, for example, but not removal. Should the Senate approve each firing? Can it withdraw its "advice and consent" and force a resignation? And he challenges himself, as seen in his surprising discussion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in light of Article 4, which orders states to give "full faith and credit" to the acts of other states.

Wry, original, and surprising, American Epic is a scholarly and literary tour de force.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Americans “have little interest in what the Constitution says; but… we are obsessed with what it means,” argues Epps (Democracy Reborn) in this lively, engaging study. Picking apart every article, amendment, and section—from the Preamble to the 27th Amendment—with meticulous care, the University of Baltimore law professor explores their historical and legal contexts and assesses their origins, antecedents, and their legacies. Given that people have been studying, interpreting, redefining, and amending this document for centuries, even a cursory examination might seem daunting. But Epps tackles it with glee, teasing apart what the states and the federal government can and can’t do, and playing devil’s advocate with constitutional loopholes and other points of interest. He approaches the task with a scholarly, open attitude, and his arguments and conclusions are sure to spark debate among readers of differing political mindsets. His stated aim is not to offer comprehensive explanations but to share his reading experience. In doing so, Epps has created the ideal study guide for civics and political science classes, an intelligent and provocative tour through the fascinatingly complicated, vitally important blueprint of the United States. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Epps has created the ideal study guide for civics and political science classes, an intelligent and provocative tour through the fascinatingly complicated, vitally important blueprint of the United States." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199389711
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2015
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 543,015

Meet the Author

Garrett Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore Law School. A former staff writer for the Washington Post, he has written for the New York Times, New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and the Atlantic. Two of his nonfiction books, Democracy Reborn and To An Unknown God, have been finalists for the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award. One of his two novels, The Shad Treatment, won the Lillian Smith Book Award.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Preamble: "Tell me, Muse, how it all began"
Article I: A Tale of Two Cities
Article II: Under the Bramble Bush
Article III: Solomon's Sword
Article IV: All God's Chidren
Article V: Alter or Abolish
Article VI: The Supreme Law of the Land
Article VII: Bloodless and Successful
Last Things

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