This, the “concise edition” of Liberty and Union, is an abridgment of a larger, two-volume work. It contains a glossary of legal terms (“writ,” for example, is a court order), tables of cases, a list of the 118 (so far) justices of the Supreme Court, and the texts of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution. And in a bow to the way we live today, which is to say digitally, the concise edition offers readers access to an interactive website that has links to primary and secondary sources, including cases, constitutional and historical documents, and scholarly articles. Liberty and Union is thus a newfangled thing, a living book.
And it has a clear purpose. The coauthors—Edgar J. McManus, professor emeritus of history at Queens College, and Tara Helfman, a professor at Syracuse Law School—take care to explain that Liberty and Union is not a history of the Constitution, but “a constitutional history of the United States.” Thus, it pays attention not just to the making of the Constitution but also to the “century and a half of constitutional development [that] preceded the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.” Further, while the book treats what the Supreme Court has said in numerous constitutional cases, it also recognizes that constitutional history is found not only in judicial (also known as constitutional) review, but in actions taken by the elective branches and the states.
So this “constitutional history of the United States” may also be described as “a history of American constitutionalism”—constitutionalism being, the authors observe, “the most powerful and durable ideology this country has produced.” Their purpose, they write, is “to provide a readable account of how constitutionalism has functioned over the years.” And in that they have succeeded. The focus on constitutionalism is present in the title, which is taken from Daniel Webster’s famous reply to Robert Hayne in their 1830 Senate debate over the nature of our national government. Webster ended his remarks this way: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” Those two great ideas were then, and remain now, great pillars of American constitutionalism.
In a book of more than 640 pages, excluding appendices and index, McManus and Helfman tell the story of our constitutionalism in 33 chapters, the first one being “English and Colonial Origins” and the last “The Roberts Court.” Each of the chapters contains short entries (averaging a page or two each) on key episodes. Thus, “English and Colonial Origins” treats, among its 20 entries, Magna Carta and the divine right monarchy, while “The Roberts Court” discusses, among its 11 entries, the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality and the Court.
There is no shorting of the older history and its significance. For example, while the Declaration of Independence was, at the time of its writing, “only a political document framed to rally support for independence,” it is “perhaps the most important document” of American constitutionalism, setting forth “with stirring clarity not only the reasons for the break with Britain but the principles to which Americans committed themselves as a free and independent nation.”
Regarding the government established under the Articles of Confederation, the authors relate the familiar reasons for its failure but also observe its “notable successes.” The Confederation government succeeded in prosecuting the war against Britain, bringing it to an end by way of the Treaty of Paris, merely “the single most important treaty in American history.” Then, too, it passed the Land Ordinance for the distribution and settlement of the Western lands, which wound up defining basic land policy in the United States until the Civil War. It also enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which arranged for the government of the territories north and west of the Ohio River. “The importance of the Northwest Ordinance cannot be exaggerated,” write McManus and Helfman, as it established “territorial principles that were followed by the United States for more than a century,” giving “a gloss of legitimacy to future westward expansion.”