The Lives of the Constitution


Praise for The Lives of the Constitution

“The striking thing about Tartakovsky's book is its unflagging combination of deep Constitutional wisdom and beautiful, elegant writing, occasional and appropriate lyricism, and the quality of easily leading the reader forward with the greatest enjoyment. His extraordinary talent is such that as a story teller he could take the baton from David McCullough or, as a jurist (if a future president has enough wisdom to appoint him to the Supreme Court), Antonin Scalia. Yes, he is that good.”

― Mark Helprin, author of Winter's TaleA Soldier of the Great War, and most recently Paris in the Present Tense

The Lives of the Constitution is as supple, smart, and opinionated as the ten men and women it depicts. Joseph Tartakovsky will surprise and instruct you on every page.” 

— Richard Brookhiser, 
Columnist, National Review

“Part history, part biography, and part legal analysis, The Lives of the Constitution is a unique account of how the American Constitution over two centuries has both changed and yet remained the same. Tartakovsky combines his pragmatic expertise as Nevada’s Deputy Solicitor General with insightful legal scholarship to show how traditional categories like 'strict constructionist' or 'progressive' do not always reflect the unexpected ways in which the Constitution has both enriched America in times of evolutionary change and yet saved America from radical transformation. A wholly original approach and analysis.”

— Victor Davis Hanson,
Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
Stanford University

“Avoiding legal jargon and sketching vivid, memorable portraits of his subjects, the author offers a scholarly yet accessible book to general audiences. Verdict: A thoughtful, clever work on how different generations have thought about the Constitution. Well worth the time of American history and law students.”

— Michael Eshleman,
Library Journal, starred review

“[A] fascinating and lively way to recast the nation’s founding document.... [Tartakovsky] introduces a novel twist: The proper way to understand the Constitution is not simply to engage in historical exegesis or textual commentary, but to view it primarily as ‘a story of human beings….’ [He] is well served by his ability to communicate important points with an enviable brevity.… [I]t is a credit to Tartakovsky that he has reminded us of the vitality of our founding document in such a novel and unassuming way.”

— Jay Cost, National Review,
April 30, 2018 issue. Read the rest

“The striking thing about Tartakovsky's book is its unflagging combination of deep Constitutional and historical wisdom, beautiful and elegant writing, occasional and appropriate lyricism, and the quality of easily leading the reader forward with the greatest enjoyment. His extraordinary talent is such that as a story teller he could take the baton from David McCullough or, as a jurist (if a future president has enough wisdom to appoint him to the Supreme Court), Antonin Scalia. Yes, he is that good.”

— Mark Helprin,
author of Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, 
and most recently Paris in the Present Tense


"[The Lives of the Constitution] is masterful in marching through the main currents of constitutional thought, making them come alive through the people who shaped them. Tartakovsky also supplies delightful little details that illustrate broader philosophical points."

— Ilya Shapiro, Claremont Review of Books
 senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute and editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review


"[A]n engaging and persuasive study...[Tartakovsky] weaves a sturdy and colorful tapestry that brightly showcases the key strands tying together our founding document and, by extension, our polity."

— Michael Rosen, in The Federalist


#1 Amazon bestseller in both Constitutional Law and Legal Biography.

Audiobook by Joseph now available on iTunes and Audible.

Read the opening chapter

See Joseph's July 3 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

In a fascinating blend of biography and history, Joseph Tartakovsky tells the epic and unexpected story of our Constitution through the eyes of ten extraordinary individuals―some renowned, like Alexander Hamilton and Woodrow Wilson, and some forgotten, like James Wilson and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Tartakovsky brings to life their struggles over our supreme law from its origins in revolutionary America to the era of Obama and Trump. Sweeping from settings as diverse as Gold Rush California to the halls of Congress, and crowded with a vivid Dickensian cast, Tartakovsky shows how America’s unique constitutional culture grapples with questions like democracy, racial and sexual equality, free speech, economic liberty, and the role of government.

Joining the ranks of other great American storytellers, Tartakovsky chronicles how Daniel Webster sought to avert the Civil War; how Alexis de Tocqueville misunderstood America; how Robert Jackson balanced liberty and order in the battle against Nazism and Communism; and how Antonin Scalia died warning Americans about the ever-growing reach of the Supreme Court.

From the 1787 Philadelphia Convention to the clash over gay marriage, this is a grand tour through two centuries of constitutional history as never told before, and an education in the principles that sustain America in the most astonishing experiment in government ever undertaken.

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A conversation with author Joseph Tartakovsky about his book, The Lives of the Constitution

Q:  What led you to write this book?

A:   I’m a lawyer and a historian who wanted to understand how we Americans have thrived now for nine generations under the same Constitution. The answer, I found, is in our unique constitutional culture, a deep and instinctive loyalty to certain principles, customs, and sentiments. Most countries today imitate our Constitution—beginning with a “We, the people of Mongolia” or “We, the Polish Nation”—but we know that constitutional texts, without a culture to honor those texts, are just hollow words. The Russian Constitution guarantees free press, but Putin owns the media and journalists die in dark hallways. Our Constitution has given us an infinity of power, freedom, security, and wealth. We have everything to lose by letting that culture fray and everything to gain by preserving it. We should be proud of our Constitution and its longevity. This book recounts timeless lessons that got us through crisis after crisis over the last 230 years.

Q:  There are many books on the U.S. Constitution. How is yours different?

A:  Most books on the Constitution are recitations of the great court cases or discourses on “theories” of constitutional interpretation. My book is different because I believe that the story of our Constitution cannot be told merely as an account of a legal document. It must be told as a story of human beings. I try to follow, humbly, the biographical method of Plutarch on the Greeks and Romans, Samuel Johnson on the English poets, or Lytton Strachey on the Victorians, all of whom proved that you could best capture a civilization by following some of its prominent members in their adventures through it. The Lives of the Constitution, so far as I know, is the first book to take this approach. Biography sheds essential light. You can't understand Hamilton's constitutional thought, for instance, without first understanding his wartime service. 

Q:  How did you pick these ten people as subjects?

A:   The ten figures in my book all made an extraordinary contribution to drafting, amending, interpreting, or challenging the Constitution. Their lives span the entirety of our constitutional existence, from the chaotic 1780s before the Constitution was written, to the Civil War and Progressive Era, to the age of Obama and Trump. My subjects include judges, but also a journalist, a president, a Senator, and two foreigners. It had to be that way, because life under the Constitution looks quite different depending on your moment in history. Daniel Webster, a U.S. Senator in the 1840s, tried to save the country from civil war by denying powers to states. Antonin Scalia, a judge in the 2000s, tried to save the country from culture war by restoring powers to states. I tried, where I could, to recount the unknown stories and curious incidents that make our constitutional odyssey so irresistible, which takes us from dusty, gambler-ridden courtrooms in California in the 1850s to the palace of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Q:   What’s the biggest misconception about the Constitution?

A:   That faithfulness to the Constitution is simply a matter of ventriloquizing the forefathers. Would it were possible. We rightly revere the Founding Fathers, a glorious generation whose genius did more than any other in history to teach humanity about free government. But as James Madison said, “doubt and difficulties” in interpreting the Constitution would inevitably arise.  To say the least. Once the Constitution took effect in 1788, the Founders fell out bitterly on question after constitutional question: the President’s power over foreign policy, the legality of the federal bank, the scope of free speech and the Commerce Clause, and so on. To me, far more illuminating than the founders’ agreements were their disagreements. We honor the men of 1787 most faithfully by trying not to speak in their name but rather to engage in the far harder task of trying to be Americans of their kind—to approach constitutional dilemmas with their intelligence, learning, and patriotism.

Q:   You write about some famous figures, like Alexander Hamilton and Woodrow Wilson. Why cover this territory?

A:   Alexander Hamilton and Woodrow Wilson provide timeless constitutional lessons. And both are misunderstood. Hamilton has always played second fiddle to Thomas Jefferson. Yet it was Hamilton’s vision of the Constitution, not Jefferson’s, that prevailed. Hamilton gave us the interpretation of a Constitution of breadth, power, flexibility, fit for a nation destined to overmaster the world. The boasts of every State of the Union speech, from our imposing, far-flung military to the President’s stewardship over the economy, were Hamilton’s dream, and Jefferson’s nightmare. Yet Jefferson has a marble temple erected to him in D.C. and Hamilton just barely kept his place on the $10 note. Even with the musical, plainly, his reputation is still not secure.

Woodrow Wilson gets the opposite treatment. Here is a president who has been out of office for 100 years and yet is blamed for everything from undermining the Constitution’s separation of powers to masterminding the present administrative state. Right or wrong, Wilson is fascinating as a president who also spent 25 years as a constitutional scholar and historian. In particular, few Americans ever spoke so eloquently about the question of how to adapt the Constitution to the predicaments of later ages. “The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straightjacket,” he said. “There were blank pages in it, into which could be written passages that would suit the exigencies of the day.” That’s a view of the Constitution that Americans will always wrestle with, even those who disagree.

Q:    Let me ask you about some of your lesser known figures. Who was Stephen J. Field? Robert H. Jackson?

A:    Stephen Field was a Gold Rush lawyer eventually appointed by Abraham Lincoln as the first Westerner on the Supreme Court. He became the second longest-serving justice and its ultimate libertarian. No justice on the Court ever wrote as eloquently about the Constitution’s relation to economics and labor. Field’s fingerprints are all over doctrines like whether the Constitution secures a right to pursue lawful callings without state interference or the notion that corporations have rights as “people” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some arguments that Field lost in his day are on the march now.

Robert H. Jackson began his legal career trying livestock cases over cows in upstate New York barns but eventually rose to become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Attorney General and later a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. His constitutional mind was so powerful that even his arguments in dissent eventually became the most enduring statements of the constitutional law. For instance, his opinion in the Youngstown case, from 1952, over whether President Truman could seize American steel mills during the Korean War, is the most unimprovable statement of the balance of power between the White House and Congress in matters of national security and foreign affairs. These issues arise again and again and we find ourselves thinking in Jackson’s terms: he is cited, repeatedly, by both sides in Hawaii v. Trump, the Supreme Court's "travel ban" case.

Q:    What is important about Ida Well-Barnett?

A:   Ida Wells-Barnett was a black woman born a slave in Mississippi in 1862 who, by the 1890s, was undisputed as the greatest journalist-crusader in American history against lynching. She helped awaken the nation’s conscience to brutality and sadism of the South’s treatment of its black citizens. Her efforts began (but hardly ended) the march toward actually enforcing the Constitution in favor of penniless and terrorized blacks. Wells-Barnett was also a suffragist. The saga of women’s rights from Seneca Falls in 1848 to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 is the richest illustration of how profound constitutional change is instigated by ordinary Americans. I find people like Wells-Barnett, or her friend Susan B. Anthony, something like unacknowledged founders. Anthony, for instance, died years before Americans ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. But it makes no sense to describe her as anything but a framer of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Q:   This book covers our whole history, but it’s only 220 pages. Why so short?

A:   Doing the research needed to write a work of history and law renewed my appreciation for brevity in books. My goal was to write something instructive, entertaining, and short. We’re all busy. Most nights, before turning to my book, I read to my little girls at bedtime. Toddler books are usually about 12 pages. One even had 12 words. They served as models.

Q:   What advice do your figures have for Americans today?

A:    First, the best antidote to hysteria is a good dose of history. The Constitution has been pronounced dead more or less constantly since the beginning of the republic. Yet the truth is that in earlier eras our predecessors suffered worse strains and faced deadlier enemies. The past gives us a sense of proportion and a chance to avoid repeating our worst mistakes. Second, self-government gives us more than any other form of government, but it also requires more of us, too. James Wilson, a figure in my book—and the most important founder you never heard of—taught that we had a duty to cherish the Constitution, if we wanted it to last. “There is not in the whole science of politics a more solid or a more important maxim than this,” he said, “that of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles.”