The best books on constitutional history

Gerard N. Magliocca Author Of American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment
By Gerard N. Magliocca

Who am I?

My books are about American constitutional history, especially the parts or people that are typically overlooked. In these polarized times, there is both wisdom and comfort that can be found in looking at our past. One lesson from looking back is that there was no “golden age” in which Americans all got along. Democracy is sometimes messy, sometimes violent, and almost always involves fierce disagreements. Judged at a distance, there is great drama and great satisfaction in looking at how prior generations addressed their problems. I hope you enjoy the books on my list!

I wrote...

American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment

By Gerard N. Magliocca,

Book cover of American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment

What is my book about?

John Bingham was the architect of the rebirth of the United States following the Civil War. A leading antislavery lawyer and congressman from Ohio, Bingham wrote the most important part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees fundamental rights and equality to all Americans.

He was also at the center of two of the greatest trials in history, giving the closing argument in the military prosecution of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. And more than any other man, Bingham played the key role in shaping the Union’s policy towards the occupied ex-Confederate States, with consequences that still haunt our politics.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The English Constitution: The Principles of a Constitutional Monarchy

Why did I love this book?

This is the best book ever written about constitutions. Bagehot was a journalist and brought a common-sense take to constitutional history that lawyers often lack. He focuses on how the Victorian Constitution and how it evolved from England’s history, but also compares that set of customs and institutions to the American Constitution in the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s a quick read that will really get you thinking.  

By Walter Bagehot,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The English Constitution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The English Constitution


Walter Bagehot

The English Constitution is a book by Walter Bagehot. First serialised in The Fortnightly Review between 15 May 1865 and 1 January 1867, and later published in book form in the latter year. It explores the constitution of the United Kingdom, specifically the functioning of Parliament and the British monarchy, and the contrasts between British and American government. The book became a standard work which was translated into several languages.

While Walter Bagehot's references to the Parliament of the United Kingdom have become dated, his observations on the monarchy are seen as central to…

Book cover of On Treason: A Citizen's Guide to the Law

Why did I love this book?

Professor Larson is America’s leading expert on treason and wrote this book for non-lawyers. He starts with treason in England, discusses the views of the Founding Fathers, and then goes through many entertaining treason cases or examples. Some involve familiar historical names like Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, and Jefferson Davis. Others involve notorious celebrities such as Tokyo Rose and Jane Fonda. A fun book on a serious subject. 

By Carlton F. W. Larson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Treason as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A concise, accessible, and engaging guide to the crime of treason, written by the nation's foremost expert on the subject

Treason-the only crime specifically defined in the United States Constitution-is routinely described by judges as more heinous than murder. Today, the term is regularly tossed around by politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle. But, as accusations of treason flood the news cycle, it is not always clear what the crime truly is, or when it should be prosecuted.

Carlton F. W. Larson, a scholar of constitutional law and legal history, takes us on a journey to understand…

Book cover of Habeas Corpus in Wartime: From the Tower of London to Guantanamo Bay

Why did I love this book?

Professor Tyler is the nation’s leading expert on the suspension of habeas corpus, and this is the must-read book on that issue. Habeas Corpus in Wartime is longer and denser than my other picks, but that’s partly because suspending habeas corpus (in other words, saying that people may be jailed indefinitely without charges) is such a momentous decision that was taken only in a grave crisis such as the Civil War and World War Two. Where this book really shines is in its discussion of less famous examples of suspension, such as how the British responded to “traitors” during the Revolutionary War and how Congress used suspension to fight the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. When the next emergency comes and there are calls to invoke this power again, you’ll be glad you read this book.

By Amanda L. Tyler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Habeas Corpus in Wartime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Habeas Corpus in Wartime unearths and presents a comprehensive account of the legal and political history of habeas corpus in wartime in the Anglo-American legal tradition. The book begins by tracing the origins of the habeas privilege in English law, giving special attention to the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which limited the scope of executive detention and used the machinery of the English courts to enforce its terms. It also explores the
circumstances that led Parliament to invent the concept of suspension as a tool for setting aside the protections of the Habeas Corpus Act in wartime. Turning…

Book cover of Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Why did I love this book?

This is the best blow-by-blow account of the Constitution’s ratification. Professor Maier goes through the debate in each state and brings those remarkable moments to life. There are many books about the Constitutional Convention, but few on what happened afterward that made what was just a proposal into law. Unlike the Convention, which was deliberate and held behind closed doors, the ratification debate was raucous and public. Maier’s book also provides a good sense of why so many Americans were skeptical of the Constitution and wanted a bill of rights added.

By Pauline Maier,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ratification as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Synopsis coming soon.......

Book cover of Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction

Why did I love this book?

This is a groundbreaking analysis of how free Blacks and women fought for racial equality before the Civil War and how that fight shaped the Fourteenth Amendment. Professor Masur focuses on states such as Ohio and Illinois where laws discriminating against blacks were commonplace. The political effort to repeal these laws brought together an unprecedented coalition that included many future leaders of Reconstruction, but the critical point is that the people who were the objects of the discrimination found ways to make their voices heard even though they could not vote.

By Kate Masur,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Until Justice Be Done as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The half-century before the Civil War was beset with conflict over equality as well as freedom. Beginning in 1803, many free states enacted laws that discouraged free African Americans from settling within their boundaries and restricted their rights to testify in court, move freely from place to place, work, vote, and attend public school. But over time, African American activists and their white allies, often facing mob violence, courageously built a movement to fight these racist laws. They countered the states' insistences that states were merely trying to maintain the domestic peace with the equal-rights promises they found in the…

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