America's Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Communityby Robert L. Tsai
The U.S. Constitution opens by proclaiming the sovereignty of all citizens: "We the People." Robert Tsai's gripping history of alternative constitutions invites readers into the circle of those who have rejected this ringing assertion--the defiant groups that refused to accept the Constitution's definition of who "the people" are and how their authority should… See more details below
The U.S. Constitution opens by proclaiming the sovereignty of all citizens: "We the People." Robert Tsai's gripping history of alternative constitutions invites readers into the circle of those who have rejected this ringing assertion--the defiant groups that refused to accept the Constitution's definition of who "the people" are and how their authority should be exercised.
America's Forgotten Constitutions is the story of America as told by dissenters: squatters, Native Americans, abolitionists, socialists, internationalists, and racial nationalists. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Tsai chronicles eight episodes in which discontented citizens took the extraordinary step of drafting a new constitution. He examines the alternative Americas envisioned by John Brown (who dreamed of a republic purged of slavery), Robert Barnwell Rhett (the Confederate "father of secession"), and Etienne Cabet (a French socialist who founded a utopian society in Illinois). Other dreamers include the University of Chicago academics who created a world constitution for the nuclear age; the Republic of New Afrika, which demanded a separate country carved from the Deep South; and the contemporary Aryan movement, which plans to liberate America from multiculturalism and feminism.
Countering those who treat constitutional law as a single tradition, Tsai argues that the ratification of the Constitution did not quell debate but kindled further conflicts over basic questions of power and community. He explains how the tradition mutated over time, inspiring generations and disrupting the best-laid plans for simplicity and order. Idealists on both the left and right will benefit from reading these cautionary tales.
Tsai (law, American Univ.; Eloquence and Reason) has selected eight transformative legal texts to show how legality and social process interact in dissident communities and diverse settings. The documents represent an astonishing array of ideologies from utopian socialism and internationalism to Confederate and black power movements. Using an analytical framework based on categories of sovereignty and self-rule, each chapter considers the historical significance and dynamic growth of its community, culminating in marginalization or integration of its philosophies into the broader legal and political culture of this nation. The organization is historical, beginning with 19th-century social campaigns to nascent Aryan nation communities. The author successfully demonstrates the difficulties of establishing and maintaining alternative legal cultures even with strong, visionary leadership. Including extensive notes, this book suits students of law and society, yet the smooth-flowing narrative should also appeal to general readers of alternative American history. VERDICT A deft, readable investigation of this country's complex legal traditions with lessons for contemporary fringe groups.—Antoinette Brinkman, formerly with Southwest Indiana Mental Health Ctr. Lib., Evansville
Tsai (Law/American Univ.; Eloquence and Reason: Creating a First Amendment Culture, 2008, etc.) examines eight instances of dissenting constitutions written by groups representing cultural attitudes out of the norm seeking unconventional sovereignty. These groups seeking self-rule knew that a written constitution was a means of ordering their society and that it would shape how their ideas and values would unfold. Each was based on the United States Constitution of 1787, with changes, as the Confederacy stated, to "a few erroneous sentences." The first constitution was an attempt at pioneer sovereignty in 1832, when the area of Indian Stream (between modern-day Quebec and New Hampshire) set up its own republic, rejecting not only the borders of New Hampshire and Vermont, but also ties to Canada or the United States. John Brown sought an ethical sovereignty, while the Confederacy of the Southern states pursued cultural supremacy. In the mid-1800s, a group of French sought to found an Icarian society of ethical sovereignty based on a moral code (what we might now call a cult). In 1905, the Native Americans of the Oklahoma Territory wrote the Sequoyah constitution in hopes of having a separate Indian state of tribal sovereignty admitted to the union; their document was used as the template for Oklahoma's constitution. After World War II, a group from the University of Chicago tried to better the United Nations charter with a plan for global governance, which unfortunately required the dismantling of nation-states. The civil rights movement fostered the Republic of New Afrika in the late 1960s. In 2006, a group of Aryans gathered in the Pacific Northwest to form an all-white community. Each of these groups sought cultural survival and failed as they settled for flawed solutions. The author succinctly explains each of these constitutions with the thoroughness of a legal mind and writing that avoids legalese.
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Meet the Author
Robert L. Tsai is Professor of Law at American University.
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