This book review was written for a college course that focused on the U.S. Constitution. This book was part of that course's curriculum. It was an excellent course, and one of the bright spots of my college days. Labunski's work is also just a good book.
Richard Labunski’s work, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, is perhaps one of the more important books about the Constitution in recent years. It was indeed the best sort of book to read while taking a course in the Constitution. With all the debate about the Bill of Rights in recent times, it is important to look back at how this set of ten Amendments to the Constitution almost never existed. Without James Madison, it may never have been.
Labunski’s purpose in writing this very well-researched and in-depth book is to educate the American public about how little most people know about the entire process of getting the Bill of Rights passed. He writes to show how this country nearly did not even have a bill of rights, which we take so much for granted. What if our civil liberties, like our freedom of speech and our rights to a fair trial, had not been explicitly enumerated in a Constitutional amendment? American history would be vastly different. Perhaps, it would be a lot more violent and chaotic than it already is.
Labunski was incredibly thorough in his research for this book. He goes into great detail to put the reader into the mindset of the late eighteenth-century. This he does very well. He reminds people of how difficult travel really was in those days, and how each colony had its own way of running things. Virginia was an incredibly powerful place in those days, along with New York, which was important then as much as it is today. Those two places nearly did not ratify the Constitution, never mind the Bill of Rights.
In fact, it was the Bill of Rights that would be the major reason that Virginia and New York would even join the United States. Imagine a United States without two of its most powerful states, especially in the 1780’s and 1790’s. It would be the Federalist Papers, mostly written by James Madison, himself a Virginian, that would persuade those states to join the Union. What Labunski’s book does is go more in depth than other books in the general education of American history often do.
His intended audience is clearly anyone who is interested in the history of the Bill of Rights. Also, it includes anyone interested in the politics in the time of the fledgling Articles of Confederation. However, it is a very accessible book. Anyone willing to put the time in reading a fairly lengthy book will find it an enjoyable read. It is by no means a “boring” historical book. In fact, it is almost a free-flowing narrative in some areas. It is very factual and organized. But it's also something you could read before bedtime without straining your brain. It is a scholarly work that is actually quite enjoyable to read. It’s a nice mixture of history, political science, and biography.
Without giving a plot synopsis, I would like to mention some things that I found to be most interesting in this book. First of all, the politics of Virginia in the day were quite interesting, especially the way elections were held. They were not held as orderly or as secretly as they are today. In fact, politicians would serve food and drink, sometimes even alcoholic beverages to appease the voters! Also, the voting class was primarily the elite landowners. The question of who would be allowed to vote was the greatest question surrounding the birth of the new nation. It would actually be a major part of why Virginia was so reluctant to pass the Constitution.
Actually, the Constitution as we know it was not ever truly supposed to happen. The Constitutional Convention was meant to revise the Articles of Confederation. It was not to discard them and create a replacement. The people of Virginia who had voted James Madison and others as their delegates to the Convention were not pleased that the Articles now appeared to be dead. Madison had his doubts about the Constitution in the early going. But he came to feel that the Bill of Rights would make it a great system of government. After a good deal of study, Madison went from being speculative about it to being one of its most avid supporters. This is evidenced by his major contributions to the Federalist Papers.
Madison was definitely a political genius. In the Federalist Papers that he wrote, he was very thorough about how the Constitution would solve so many problems that the states were facing under the Articles of Confederation. He was a rather frail little man, who traveled in adverse conditions via often uncomfortable horse and carriage. He probably didn't know he was on his way to becoming perhaps the most important Founding Father of all. What he was well aware of was that the Constitution was far from perfect. It needed the Bill of Rights, to guarantee a society that will leave it open to debate.
The Constitution had the mechanisms to work. Now, it just needed the enumerated rights that would protect those mechanisms from infringing on basic human rights. Madison originally felt that the Bill of Rights was really necessary. So he was very smart to adopt it and convince others of its necessity. As history now shows us, that Bill of Rights has become the very foundation upon which our country has built itself upon. Those first ten amendments were the foundation on which America would abolish slavery, protect minority rights and women’s suffrage.
The Bill of Rights seems to again and again be our best reference to what it is that America should do next. So, Labunski’s work is important in that it shows how much went into taking a set of enumerated rights that we take for granted. In this day and age, so many constitutional questions are bandied about in the media, in government, and in classrooms throughout America. This book serves as a reminder of how much work it was to just allow us to be able to ask these questions.
Imagine an America without the Bill of Rights. Would America have even survived without that Bill of Rights? Without that Bill of Rights, there would not have been an eventual unanimous adoption of the Constitution. Madison’s Federalist Papers were a major part of that. But there was even more to the story, and this book tells it very well.