Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"American Epic" by Garrett Epps (2013)

I don’t often take exception with a book I have read. I either like it, or I don’t. The rare time that I do give a bad review to a book is usually a reaction on my part to some misinterpretation; or attempt at indoctrination; in a book which concerns history. This reaction is intensified when that book is about the United States Constitution. So, let’s just say that this book; while not an out and out misrepresentation; is, in my opinion, an attempt at indoctrination of the reader to the author’s point of view. And quite simply, that view is that the Constitution is flawed; and though it is never stated; the author seems to find it damaged enough to need replacing.

Whenever you read a book about the Constitution you should look for one thing immediately; the placement, or exclusion of the document about which the author is writing. If it is entirely missing from the book; as it was with Ray Raphael’s “Constitutional Myths”, which I reviewed here earlier this year; then you know something is wrong, as the author doesn't want you to see the real document in question.  

The second way to keep people from diligently comparing what the author wants you to believe with the actual text in question, is to bury that document in the back of the book as part of the Appendix, as Mr. Epps has done here. This has the effect on the reader of reading the indoctrination portion first, then the actual document; which is now perceived to be “flawed”; afterwards.

Mr. Epps takes the Constitution apart Article by Article; Amendment by Amendment; telling us all what the founding fathers really meant to write. He even tells us why. I find this fascinating, that he; and only he; can divine the true intentions of the daring and learned men who risked it all to found our nation.

The rewriting of the Constitution as envisioned by Mr. Epps begins with the very first Article in the Constitution; well; actually before that when he claims the Constitution was forced upon the States without any input from the people. This is an absurd claim, bolstered only by small anecdotal stories which are not borne out by the outcome of history. This is the same reasoning which allows people to claim that the Constitution usurped the Federalist Papers; which were a temporary and imperfect way to govern our newly formed nation, though they did serve a purpose while the Constitution came into being.

Mr. Epps claims; in a very narrow reading of events; that the Representatives of the individual States had no idea that they were assembling to write a new Constitution. They were there to amend only the existing set of rules which pre-dated the Constitution. It was all a secret cabal; a plot of which no one was aware. Not even the legislators themselves. He would have you believe that it was all so hush-hush that when these representatives went home, and the Constitution was finally ratified by all the states, no one took notice of that change.

I’ll use just a few instances to outline what I perceive to be very narrow readings of the Constitution on the part of the author;

Page 22; paragraph 3 states that nothing in Article 1 Section 8 applies to the territories annexed after 1787. That’s right; he actually says that. I do not think a response, or criticism is in order here. Just take a trip to any state which has been annexed since that time and you will see that America is whole. We may not agree on things, but the country is governed, on the whole, by the United States Constitution. I think it would be hard to find many people who would dispute that.

Page 71; paragraph 4 quotes Article 4 Section 3 as stating “no new state shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the consent of the legislatures of the States  concerned as well as that of Congress.” He then moves the semi-colon and attributes new grammatical meaning upon the whole Article based on a very narrow reading of that semi-colon. Clearly, the purpose of the Article was to bind the Colonies together as one, without having the Northeast break away from the southern states at a time when dissolving our new democracy would have been disastrous.

This was also the basis for denying the right to leave the Union to the Southern States in 1861. Had the founding Fathers not included this Article there would have been no legal basis to keep the country whole and weather the storm of the Civil War. Wise men indeed were these founding fathers of ours. I suppose; according to Mr. Epps; that West Virginia does not have the right to exist; since it violates that Article. But that would be a very narrow reading; ignoring the fact that West Virginia left Virginia when Virginia violated that Article to become the capitol of the Confederate States.

I’m going to skip forward a bit, or else this review will be enormously long. On page 174 Mr. Epps finds what he perceives to be the first time the words “the Right to Vote” appear in the Constitution, as Part of the 14th Amendment. Technically this is true. But if you skip back to Article One Section 2 of the Constitution you will find that “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the people of the several states…” The italics are mine. The meaning is clear; the people shall chose; or vote; for their representatives. Of course the 14th Amendment was one of the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, composed after the end of the Civil War, but the difference in language aside, the intent is clear on both occasions; the people shall chose; or vote, for their representatives.

This was a difficult book for me to read and to review. The difficulty in reading it was due to the feeling that, in my opinion, this book was written with the agenda of undermining the people’s faith in the Constitution. The difficulty in reviewing it is that I dislike giving a bad review. This is probably only the 4th such one I have done in 5 years.

Don’t take me wrong; there is much going wrong in Washington, D.C. at the present time. With that assertion I cannot disagree with Mr. Epps. But the Constitution is not the problem. The problem lies with those people in power who ignore it, and abuse it for their own gain. The answer, therefore, lies in changing those people, and not the Constitution; except, of course, by Amendment.

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