J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Presentist Picture Book

Looking ahead, Unite or Die (review starting here) praises the constitutional convention of 1787 for providing a way for the U.S. of A. to amend its Constitution. However, Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj’s picture book doesn’t discuss a more difficult concept: that our national idea of the Constitution and what it means has changed without formal amendments. Instead, it projects back to 1787 some of our current ideas about how the Constitution does and should work.

Most notably, the book reflects our modern American state by emphasizing the executive branch over the legislative. The nation’s founders saw the legislative branch as the most important and controlling part of a government. Their Constitution addresses the national legislature first and devotes the most space to it (ten sections, more than executive and judiciary combined).

In contrast, Unite or Die consistently lists and shows the executive branch first. It states that one big problem of the Articles of Confederation was the lack of “a strong government with a leader.” At the time, the Presidency was one of the document’s most hotly debated changes. Would creating such an office lead to monarchism? (Certainly the Presidency has become more powerful today than the 1787 convention imagined.) Unite or Die also suggests that good governments have separate executive and legislative branches; parliamentary democracies would disagree with that.

Similarly, page 33 shows a character saying that state laws wouldn’t be allowed to conflict with the national Constitution, but it took decades for that notion to prevail. The document spelled out its limitations on states’ powers. In 1833, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, not the states. Not until the 1890s and later did federal courts adopt the doctrine of “incorporation” under the Fourteenth Amendment, making states respect individual rights on the basis of the Constitution.

Unite or Die thus offers a presentist view of the Constitution. It gives young readers a clear picture of how most Americans today understand that founding document. For a book being used in schools, that’s both a strength and a weakness. Its picture of the Constitution matches what most Americans have been taught, and it presents that information in a lively way, especially considering the audience and the bounds of the picture-book format.

At the same time, we’re missing some important history that might force us to think.

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