America's Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community

America's Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community

by Robert L. Tsai

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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

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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.

Editorial Reviews

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Tsai’s recovery of the constitutional plans of dissenting political communities challenges our sense of a stable constitutional history. America’s Forgotten Constitutions masterfully exposes the disturbingly shaky foundations of constitutional identity; yet it also shows the (mildly reassuring) consistency of constitutional thinking, even among white supremacists, land-grabbers, and moralistic ideologues.
John Fabian Witt
For two centuries, dissenters from the American mainstream have drawn inspiration from the U.S. Constitution—and chafed at it. Tsai elegantly maps the margins of our constitutional landscape to reveal one of the Framers’ great forgotten legacies. A brilliantly conceived book.
PopMatters - Hans Rollman
Offers a refreshing and innovative take on a centuries-old topic…These stories of ‘forgotten constitutions’ offer a tantalizing glimpse into the power of the written word in shaping American political discourse and ideas, both popular and philosophical, about American society. This is not merely a collection of assorted oddities or constitutional anecdotes from America’s political margins, however. Taken together, they comprise a chronological narrative of some of the key issues galvanizing political activism throughout the past 200 years of American history…By exploring the efforts of those who went beyond mere intellectual debate, and who actually tried to build alternative nations or states within the U.S., Tsai offers a unique vantage into the ideological struggles underpinning American history and politics…These constitutional efforts all represent efforts by everyday Americans to take charge of the society immediately surrounding them, express their grievances with the status quo and literally re-write the conditions of their lives.
Daily Beast - Tom Arnold-Foster
Engaging to read…[Tsai’s] picture is far richer than the grim founder worship usually found in American political orthodoxy…For Tsai’s constitution writers, the U.S. Constitution stands as an obligatory model, something they necessarily define themselves in relation to. All designed some sort of republic. All detailed mechanisms for ‘popular decision making, divided powers, and enumerated rights.’ And all, in the end, underline just how largely the Constitution figures in the American political imagination: less a charter of freedom than a document of power.
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews
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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