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America's Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  329 ratings  ·  42 reviews
Despite its venerated place atop American law and politics, our written Constitution does not enumerate all of the rules and rights, principles and procedures that actually govern modern America. The document makes no explicit mention of cherished concepts like the separation of powers and the rule of law. On some issues, the plain meaning of the text misleads. For example ...more
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published September 11th 2012 by Basic Books
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Bryan Alkire
Apr 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Worth reading once. In fact, it’s probably worth more to browse after the first three chapters. Those three chapters lay out the principles and sources for interpreting the constitution through sources outside itself. The rest of the book more narrowly focuses on specific sources, ideas and groups. The book is at its best at the beginning, but becomes a repetitive slog soon after the third chapter. At that point, the author starts repeating the same cases and indulging the same hobbyhorses over ...more
Max Nova
Feb 20, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: government, law
Akhil Amar’s “America’s Unwritten Constitution” is an accessible and well-executed book that lays out how Amar thinks about the Constitution. By interpreting the document in terms of its historical context throughout many periods of American history, Amar guides the reader through his own internally consistent and lucid understanding of the Constitution.

Most of the book is individual case studies (grouped by broad topics), although towards the end Amar makes several strong recommendations regard
Mar 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Good, but not nearly as good as all the fluffing reviews crack it up to be. And, it's got a couple of specific problems.

It's perhaps a 3.5 star, but, I'm moving down rather than up a half star.

Among its problems?

Amar claims that the Constitution enshrines 2-party government. No it doesn't, not even after the 12th Amendment. Even taking into account his definition of an unwritten Constitution, it doesn't, not from where I sit. Things like the requirement for members of the Federal Election Commis
Jan 25, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: law
Akhil Amar’s America’s Unwritten Constitution takes a different approach to constitutional interpretation. Instead of falling somewhere on the literalism—living constitution dichotomy, Amar emphasizing looking at the “implicit constitution” and brings a different perspective to the famous Mcculloch vs. Maryland . Amar argues that the decision also lays the foundation for looking at the implicit part of the constitution.

In other words, the fact that not every possible issue is addressed is no
Stephanie McCown
Apr 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Thus begins the document upon which our nation's legal structure is built. I found this book to be intriguing because, as much as we revere the written Constitution, ther
Nov 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It is a good thing to think about our assumptions and beliefs about what the U.S. Constitution really says and the developed body of interpretation, tradition, and practice that is the Constitution in action. Hopefully, readers will have a stronger sense of both the history and tradition and the responsibility for continued interpretation that keeps the Constitution a relevant and living document creating an America in which diverse peoples may live and thrive together.
Aug 21, 2016 marked it as to-read
Shelves: nonfiction, at-sfsu
Cited in the National Constitution Center's Podcast, "We the People", in the delightful and fascinating August 4th, 2016 episode on The Presidency of George Washington . The author, Akhil Reed Amar of Yale University, was one of the participants. ...more
Dennis Stimson
Dec 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding and even I could comprehend the authors reasoning. Well written and great information to consider. I enjoy Mr.Amar's clear and incisive way of explaining ideas. ...more
Evan Macbeth
Dec 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
A fantastic overview of constitutional interpretation, with a clear agenda, but presented honestly and transparently. This is the best "civics" book I've read since studying Government at UVA. ...more
Anthony Murawski
Shockingly naive about inequities in the criminal justice system

I was very surprised and often flabbergasted reading this book. Just one example: the author writes about the Sixth Amendment right of persons charged with a crime as if it were truly meaningful, although anyone who has practiced law for a year or longer knows that prosecutors have to handle very few cases compared to public defenders, and have enormously greater resources at their disposal. According to the Washington State Bar Bul
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-nonfiction
The idea is that not everything that US laws are based on exist directly in the Constitution. At some level, this is sacrilege, and at another it’s obvious. (For example, the 19th Amendment says that women can vote, but it doesn’t say they can serve on juries. That’s implicit.)

I certainly learned a lot, and the author is clearly well-versied in Constitutional law and history. But there were a few weirdnesses. Like he regularly states that SCOTUS got something right or wrong (or right but for th
Dec 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: law
Published in 2012, much of his commentary on the American electoral system is prescient for today's political reality. He states in the introduction that "although this book uses legal materials and legal reasoning, . . . nonlawyers should not be daunted." Ultimately, it was a very dense publication that was hard to read at the best of times and totally obtuse at the worst. I appreciated the many new ideas to which Amar exposed me, or, rather, new ways of looking at issues, for example, constit ...more
Gary Turner
Nov 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have always enjoyed listening to Akhil Reed Amar explain with such clarity many of the issues facing our country. Well, his book was just as good. Gets to the nuts and bolts of our inner workings from the courts perspective . The problem facing our nation is the ICP is probably the greediest of the greedy. We stopped that a few times in our countries short history, but this is on a new playing field with the rich owning our laws, our politicians and gathering more and more of the money in orde ...more
Apr 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5. Fascinating. I really enjoyed the segment of the book arguing that there are six documents that are so closely aligned to the constitution that they can be read as applying to it even though they're not part of it: the Northwest Ordinance, Gettysburg Address, MLK's Dream Speech, Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the Declaration of Independence. The book overall was a really interesting exercise in reading between the lines and thought experiments, and a good historical education. A ...more
J. Walker
Dec 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
I think this trilogy of books about the Constitution is simply brilliant.
Over the past five years, I've read all three - America's Constitution, a Biography; The Bill of Rights; and this one. I don't consider myself a Constitutional scholar, but I do consider myself well versed in the ins and outs of Constitutional history, and how it all hangs together, the text, the amendments and the "unwritten" conventions and precedents that direct our interpretation of the Constitution.
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating companion book to Amar's earlier one on the written Constitution. Explores many questions that, in this day and age, it behooves us all to be familiar with. How can we defend our democracy from the threats it faces from vitriolic attack on fundamental rights if we don't understand our foundational law? Well worth reading. ...more
Chunyang Ding
May 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent analysis and insightful opinions on how the constitution is lived and practiced in the US.
Lara Hermanson
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I love you sir
Oct 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Amar makes the case in the introduction to "America's Unwritten Constitution" that the book is aimed at educated readers; no particular legal education is necessary. This is only partially true. A normally-educated reader will likely understand the broad contours of Amar's arguments, but readers with legal backgrounds will take much more home with them. Familiarity with well-known (in legal circles) legal cases will make it easier for readers to connect the dots of Amar's historical flow that un ...more
Vincent Li
Nov 13, 2015 rated it liked it
I was more interested in what he had to say as a scholar of law than a political scientist. I picked up a lot (in particular interesting arguments regarding the enactment of the constitution and reconstruction arguments) and definitely learned a lot of historical context. Additionally, I really enjoyed his bringing in of sources such as the Federalist, Blackstone's Commentaries, a short mention of Rawls and colonial cases such as Zengler. The author is clearly knowledgeable and the breadth of to ...more
I heard an interview with the author on NPR. The boo sounded quite interesting, so I requested it from my local public library. It took several weeks but they acquired it and I borrowed it. This book offers a detailed account of how the U.S. Constitution is interpreted based on Supreme court decisions and the changing times. It is not just an historical discussion, but it is peppered with the author's opinions. Yes, it was quite interesting, but I think it would be considerable more relevant to ...more
Feb 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: mooc, law
Textualist techniques for interpreting the Constitution. Amar is the nation's leading textualist and is often cited by the originalist and sometimes textualist Justices Scalia and Thomas. Some of the techniques are reading the document as a whole, considering the implications of how it and the Amendments were enacted, taking into account the changing realities of how Americans actually live, looking to other iconic texts and relying on judicial precedent.
Not included are two of the most sensibl
Jan 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: constitution
A perfect companion to Professor Amar's other books, especially America's Constitution: A Biography. As a retired professor who taught constitutional for more than twenty-years I appreciate not only the factual statements offered by Professor Amar but also his insight and spot-on commentary. I'm not sure I'd recommend this for someone just starting their readings on the Constitution. But a basic education on what the US Constitution does, how it does it, and why it is so important to our style o ...more
Ron Tenney
Oct 06, 2012 rated it liked it
This book is not an easy read. Not that the author lacks talent in telling the story of the "lived constitution" but that depth and number of issues discussed is a bit overwhelming. The points made can be a bit technical and sometimes the chapters tend to meander around a bit. I am surely commenting more on my abitlity to stay focused and grasp this material than on the subject matter or the author. I am setting aside for a while.
Jun 25, 2013 rated it liked it
I think this book was much longer than it needed to be, and I don't think I will be reading another book by this author, but I did learn a lot from reading this book. For example, the book really informs the readers about just how important the Civil War and the reconstruction amendments to the Constitution were in making the U.S. what it is today, and I never realized that prior to reading this book. ...more
Jan 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
A wonderful description of components of the unwritten constitution and analysis showing the bond between it and the written Constitution. Amar's love for constitutional law comes through throughout the book. The last chapter, however, where he tries to anticipate future changes to the written Constitution fails. There, the book ceases to be about law and instead does a light comparison between the federal and state constitutions and then engages in advocacy. ...more
Dave McMahon
Feb 14, 2013 rated it liked it
The book is very interesting, but not accessible to the beggining reader. One must be versed with law to understand much of it. You learn a lot through the pages, but its a gruesome reading.

One bad side, the author keeps judging the Supreme Court judgement in a way like his own opinions are always right and the judges always less brilliant than him.
Jennifer Lea
Feb 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
The book started very strong, with a great intro to Con Law. Very quickly you realize that this book is the author's attempt to prove to the world that he is just as great as, and even more knowledgeable than, the Justices of the Supreme Court. It was just too much... ...more
Apr 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Scholarly but approachable history of how the terse text of the Constitution intersects with common practice, political & social evolution, institutional momentum, and the collective conscience of We the People. Recommended.
Dave Peticolas
May 10, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely wonderful book. The author examines the American Constitution and the set of unwritten rules, precedents, and conventions without which we could not make sense of the literal text, but which do not supplant the text itself. Reading this book is a serene joy.
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Akhil Reed Amar is currently Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, where he teaches constitutional law in both Yale College and Yale Law School. He received his B.A, summa cum laude, in 1980 from Yale College, and his J.D. in 1984 from Yale Law School, where he served as an editor of The Yale Law Journal. After clerking for Judge Stephen Breyer, he joined the Yale fac ...more

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Why not focus on some serious family drama? Not yours, of course, but a fictional family whose story you can follow through the generations of...
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“The written Constitution cannot work as intended without something outside of it—America’s unwritten Constitution—to fill in its gaps and to stabilize it. In” 0 likes
“Indeed, these lenses and compasses are perhaps the most important components of America’s unwritten Constitution, and they form the organizational spine of this book. Fair” 0 likes
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