When the co-authors (that’s what I call Sandy and me) give talks about our book Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today, we often point out that there are four ways that it’s different from most other books about the Constitution. Fault Lines:
- focuses on how the Constitution structures our government while many books highlight rights (such as freedom of speech) that the
- deals only with, well, the fault lines rather than with the entire document;
- compares the US Constitution to the constitutions of the fifty states and those of other countries; and
- grades our Constitution.
A number of books published in the last decade or so take different approaches to teaching the Constitution. A recent book for young readers is This is Our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father, written by Khizr Khan (along with Anne Quirk). A Pakistani immigrant to the United States whose son was killed while serving in the US Army in Iraq, Khan explains the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in kid-accessible terms and describes what these documents mean to him personally. He also highlights certain amendments and Supreme Court cases that he believes are important for democracy. He is especially inspired by and inspiring about rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
The Constitution of the United States by Christine Taylor-Butler is an introduction to key aspects of the document and high points of its development. With large font, plenty of white space, and appealing art, this is appropriate for grades three to five.
A book that might appeal to kids who are not comfortable with text is The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey, a graphic nonfiction book with art by Aaron McConnell. Incorporating panels about beliefs by Egyptians, Aztecs, and English in the divine right of kings, the opening section goes on to display drawings of philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu to indicate their influence on the idea of equality among men. Though drawn in muted tones, each panel conveys considerable information in vivid ways. For instance, a character whose head is a depiction of the White House holds an umbrella over federal judges and Cabinet members, to show that the president appoints the people who hold these offices.
Books for older readers abound as well. Two that focus on the personalities behind the Constitution are The Founders: The 39 Stories Behind the U.S. Constitution by Dennis Brindell Fradin and Who Were the Founding Fathers? Two Hundred Years of Reinventing American History by Steven H. Jaffe. The former briefly profiles men who signed the document and discusses the roles of their states in the young country. The latter demonstrates that Americans have viewed the Framers in different ways over time, depending on the issues of the day.
In writing our book, we found Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, a book for adults and curious students by Richard Beeman, a particularly lively way to learn about the Framers’ backgrounds, debates, frustrations, and compromises. James Madison, for instance, argued against a one-to-forty-thousand ratio of representatives to the general population in the lower house of Congress by pointing out that that branch might get too large “if the union should be permanent.” Nathaniel Gorham responded that the government they were creating wouldn’t last long enough for that to be a problem. “Can it be supposed that this vast country…will 150 years hence remain one nation?” he asked.
Of course, the book that is closest to ours is Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) by co-author Sanford Levinson. Here, Sandy focuses on the aspects of the Constitution that threaten our democracy. The Electoral College, for instance, can overturn the wishes of the majority of the people. So can the Senate and the president. Sandy proposes that such problems can be fixed through a new constitutional convention, though Cynthia heartily disagrees. You can read (or listen on the audio version to) our debate in the final chapter of Fault Lines in the Constitution.
There are many sources for engaging students in learning about the creation of our Constitution and in the important effects today of decisions that were made back in 1787. Studies show that young people who take a class in how our government works are about twice as likely to vote as those who do not. All of us have an obligation to them and to our country to be sure that they are knowledgeable about basic aspects of the country that they will be living in and perhaps even leading.
We, the co-authors, hope you find books that appeal to you. We also urge you to consider the flaws in the document and discuss ways to improve it.