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The Law of the Land: A Grand Tour of Our Constitutional Republic

Some of my reactions to “The Law of the Land: A Grand Tour of Our Constitutional Republic” (2015), by Akhil Reed Amar.

This is the third book in a series by Amar, a Yale law professor. The series aims to make the U.S. Constitution accessible to all Americans. I was a bit vexed to learn (on the very last page) that I was reading the third book in a series, because normally I prefer to do things in sequence. I might have more fully grasped the third book’s concepts had I read the first two books first. But no matter — it was still a good book, with many ideas that were new and interesting to me.

The book focuses on geography — how different perspectives from different regions of the United States have influenced interpretation of the Constitution. For example, in chapter 1, Amar argues that Abraham Lincoln’s strong belief in the unconstitutionality of secession was shaped by his having grown up in the Midwest. His forebears had come from several states, and he himself had lived in three states (Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois). So he naturally thought of himself and his fellow citizens as Americans first, rather than Illinoisans or South Carolinians first. In addition, as a Midwesterner, he had a special appreciation for the Mississippi River’s importance, and how much economic harm the Union would suffer were New Orleans to become part of a foreign power.

Later, in chapter 5, Amar discusses the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court declared school racial segregation laws to be unconstitutional. The case from Topeka, Kansas, was the lead case in what was actually a series of cases from several different places, mostly in the South. The Court gave the Topeka case top billing on purpose, Amar says, to drive home the point that segregation was a widespread American problem and not just a southern problem, and to soften the sense among many white southerners that they were being unfairly singled out by outsiders.

The book covers a lot of ground, more than I can adequately summarize here. There are chapters on Justices Hugo Black, Robert Jackson, and Anthony Kennedy, all personal heroes for Amar; there are chapters on Tinker v. Des Moines and Bush v. Gore, in addition to Brown v. Board; there are chapters on presidential selection and succession, the Second Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and federalism.

Amar does a good job, in my view, of explaining the logic behind the perplexing wording of the Second Amendment. (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”) The key point is that the “Militia” and the “people” were one and the same. The “people” were the voters, the electorate. The same group that was expected to constitute the jury pool in court cases, was also expected to constitute the militia in times of invasion and emergency. Today the Founders’ juries still exist, but the Founders’ militia does not. Amar says that there is nevertheless constitutional support for an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-protection. But that support derives more from the Fourteenth Amendment than from the Second. The Reconstructionist framers of the Fourteenth Amendment made explicit reference to such a right. They had in mind black people and Unionists in the South, who might not be able to count on local police to protect them from white terrorists, and who therefore might need to carry their own guns.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Some of my reactions to “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” (2000), by Joseph Ellis.

This is the second time I’ve read this book, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. I don’t remember when I first read it. Maybe 10 years ago. Last year I also read “His Excellency,” which is Ellis’s biography of George Washington.

The book is not a comprehensive history of the Founders, but an account of selected episodes from the late 1700s and early 1800s, examining the complex interactions among eight key players: the Big Six — George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton — along with Aaron Burr, and Abigail Adams (John’s wife and primary political adviser). These interactions were sometimes collaborative and sometimes deeply antagonistic. At one point they became violent, when Burr killed Hamilton in a duel (the subject of Chapter 1). Ellis notes that the interactions among the Founders represented checks and balances on a personal level, at a time when the United States was more a nation of men, than a nation of laws, institutions, and traditions. Those latter things had not yet congealed.

The founding and early years of the United States were chaotic and improvisational and precarious, a lot messier than we are perhaps led to believe when we first learn about them as children. One of the main points Ellis stresses is the tension between the “spirit of ’76” and the “spirit of ’87” — that is, between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of the Constitution. The Declaration was all about self-determination, and a repudiation of power exercised illegitimately from a faraway place. The Constitution, on the other hand, was about replacing the ineffective system of the Articles of Confederation with a consolidated federal government that would be able to get things done. Critics of the Constitution condemned it as a betrayal of revolutionary principles, and feared this new centralized government would inevitably become as corrupt and illegitimate as the one just overthrown. It took a lot of effort by the Founders to convince the electorate that the new government was a necessary compromise to meet national needs.

On one extreme, many Americans today view the Founders as near-demigods. On the other extreme, some view the Founders with mostly disdain — a group of wealthy men of European descent who enslaved people of African descent, started the process of wiping out Native American peoples and cultures, and prohibited women from participating in political affairs. Ellis, I think, does a good job of navigating between these two extremes, honoring the elements of truth in each, and giving us a portrait of men who were both extraordinarily talented, and flawed. They did not fix the nation’s original sin of slavery — instead, they mostly observed a code of silence about it, and kicked the can down the road (the subject of chapter 3). But they also established a democratic republic, over a large landmass, that has now endured for nearly 250 years, and that over the years has become more inclusive than it was. Historically speaking, this is an unprecedented achievement.

Finding Your Roots, season 4

Some of my reactions to season 4 of “Finding Your Roots,” after watching all 10 episodes. (I haven’t seen any episodes from the previous three seasons.)

By far the best moment of the entire season was Téa Leoni learning the identity of her biological maternal grandmother, and seeing a photograph of her for the first time. That was a truly powerful thing to watch. The show had had to do an unusually large amount of paper-trail and DNA detective work to track this person down. (Leoni’s mother had been adopted.)

I also enjoyed the first episode, which featured Larry David and Bernie Sanders. David has famously impersonated Sanders on “Saturday Night Live.” The two of them found out that they are distant cousins to each other, which they both thought was hilarious. David also learned that his ancestors were on both sides of historical racism — his maternal grandfather had nine siblings who almost certainly died in the Holocaust, while one of his paternal great-great-grandfathers was a slaveholder, and one of 3,000 Jews to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The story of Fred Armisen’s paternal grandfather, Masami Kuni, was also fascinating. Kuni was a dancer and choreographer in Japan, which Armisen already knew. But Armisen learned several things about Kuni that he hadn’t known — first, that he was actually quite famous in Japan (there is a whole museum there dedicated to him); second, that he worked as an entertainer in Nazi Germany, while also probably leading a double life as a spy for the Japanese emperor; and third, that he was actually born in Korea, not Japan, and that his Japanese name was not his original name. Armisen, who was bowled over by these revelations, later went to visit his grandfather’s museum in Japan, and shared footage of his visit with the show.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Some of my reactions to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I think I can do this without spoilers.

I don’t consider myself to be an intense Star Wars fan, the way many people are. That said, I’ve seen all the films in the trilogies (I haven’t yet seen “Rogue One”), and they’ve all been good diversions, even the ones in the prequel trilogy that seem to be widely disliked. And I mainly like the fact that the Star Wars phenomenon exists. These days people consume their entertainment, their news, and everything else in niches and small groups, and there is very little that we all watch together, nationally or internationally. Star Wars movies are one of the few remaining widely shared experiences we have, across cultures and generations. My wife and I went to see both “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” with her sons and grandsons, and we will probably repeat that with Episode IX.

I liked “The Force Awakens” better than “The Last Jedi.” The former movie had a better major plot twist and a better ending, I thought. Also, the major scene in “Last Jedi” involving the attack on the rebel ship and what happened to Leia, seemed a bit silly to me, even within a fantasy universe. But I feel like I ought to watch both movies again before forming a solid opinion about either one.

Breaking Bad

(Spoilers ahead.)

Some of my reactions to “Breaking Bad,” after binge-watching all five seasons last month.

It’s an extraordinary show. Its reputation as one of the greatest TV series of all time is well deserved.

I’ve been thinking mainly about the manhood theme. “Breaking Bad” is about Walter White’s quest to transform himself from beta male to alpha male. (The first episode famously opens with Walter literally not wearing pants, and out of control of his situation.) As I watched the series, I was expecting Walter to eventually become that alpha male — he appeared pretty alpha in a lot of the promotional images I had seen before watching the show. But interestingly, I don’t think he ever really got there. There always seemed to be a beta side to Walter, even as he was defeating or getting the best of the show’s full-fledged alphas (Tuco, Gus, Mike, Hank, Jack). Maybe the lesson is that he’d have been better off not even going to the trouble, if he was never going to get all the way there.

I find myself ambivalent about Walter, in a way that perhaps mirrors my ambivalence about society’s manhood standards. In both cases I find myself having no strong opinion one way or the other. Walter has many flaws and failings, engages in deceit and violence, and eventually destroys his family and himself — and yet I find myself accepting who he is, not hating him, and mostly just trying to understand him. Similarly, society has certain expectations for men — we’re valued for our status and wealth and ability to provide for our women and children, we’re supposed to avoid showing emotion or weakness, we feel like we need to be constantly jockeying for power advantage, and so forth. These expectations are not always fair, or rational, or healthy — and yet I find myself mostly accepting them, trying to understand them, and trying to find my place within them, rather than rebelling against them.

Blog revival

In 2018 I’m planning to share my reactions to every book I read, every movie and TV series I watch, every album I listen to, and every other major creative work I consume.

I’m doing this because I want to catalog what I read/watch/listen to, as well as experience the pleasures of self-expression and intellectual discussion.

Thanks for reading!

The 10 most important, iconic, quintessential Nebraska attractions

Today is the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. To mark the occasion, I’ve prepared this list of the top 10 most quintessential, iconic, must-see Nebraska attractions. (Source: Me.)

10. Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arbor Day Farm, in Nebraska City (two separate but related attractions). Birthplace of Arbor Day, the tree planter’s holiday.

9. University of Nebraska State Museum, Morrill Hall, in Lincoln. The state’s best museum. Best known for its collection of fossil elephants, including the world’s largest Columbian mammoth fossil. Also, there’s a planetarium, and an excellent and relatively new exhibit about evolution.

8. Homestead National Monument of America, near Beatrice. Tells the story of the Homestead Act of 1862, which transferred millions of acres of land in the United States from public to private ownership.

7. Scotts Bluff National Monument, near Gering and Scottsbluff. A series of steep, majestic bluffs that were an important landmark on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails.

6. Sandhill crane migration, in central Nebraska. More than half a million of these birds converge each spring along the Platte River Valley, on their way to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. One of the continent’s great wildlife spectacles.

5. The Sandhills of western Nebraska, covering about a quarter of the state. A region of mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes. Vast, undulating, relatively empty, beautiful. State Highway 2 from Grand Island to Alliance is widely regarded as the state’s most scenic drive.

4. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, in Omaha. The state’s top paid attendance attraction. Widely regarded as one of the world’s best zoos.

3. Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, and Husker football. One of the nation’s most storied college football programs. Five national championships. Intense fan base, even when the team isn’t doing well.

2. State Capitol, in Lincoln. Second tallest in the USA. Beautiful inside and out. Houses the nation’s only unicameral, nonpartisan state legislature.

1. Chimney Rock, near Bayard. Prominent, pointy rock formation. One of the most famous landmarks on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, and probably the state’s most iconic visual symbol.


That’s me, admiring Chimney Rock in July 2015.

Here are 30 runners-up for the list.

  • Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
  • The Archway, Kearney
  • Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
  • Bailey Yard and Golden Spike Tower, North Platte
  • Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, Omaha
  • Boys Town
  • Brownville
  • Carhenge, near Alliance
  • College World Series, Omaha
  • The Durham Museum, Omaha
  • Fontenelle Forest Nature Center, Bellevue
  • Fort Robinson State Park
  • Hastings Museum, Hastings
  • Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
  • Lake McConaughy and Kingsley Dam
  • Mahoney State Park
  • Missouri National Recreational River, Lewis and Clark Lake, and Gavins Point Dam
  • Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, Omaha
  • Nebraska History Museum, Lincoln
  • Nebraska National Forest (Bessey Ranger District and Pine Ridge Ranger District)
  • Niobrara National Scenic River
  • Old Market, Omaha
  • Pioneer Village, Minden
  • Strategic Air and Space Museum, near Ashland
  • Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Grand Island
  • Toadstool Geologic Park
  • Wildcat Hills
  • Willa Cather State Historic Site and Red Cloud Opera House, Red Cloud
  • (tie) The rest of the state parks (Chadron, Indian Cave, Niobrara, Platte River, Ponca, Smith Falls)
  • (tie) The rest of the state historical parks (Ash Hollow, Bowring Sandhills Ranch, Buffalo Bill Scouts Rest Ranch, Fort Atkinson, Fort Hartsuff, Fort Kearny, Rock Creek Station)