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

The Books I Picked & Why

The English Constitution: The Principles of a Constitutional Monarchy

By Walter Bagehot

The English Constitution: The Principles of a Constitutional Monarchy

Why 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.  


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On Treason: A Citizen's Guide to the Law

By Carlton F. W. Larson

On Treason: A Citizen's Guide to the Law

Why 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. 


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

By Amanda L. Tyler

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

Why 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.


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Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Why 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.


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

By Kate Masur

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

Why 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.


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