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A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The…

A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture

by Michael Kammen

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Those of us who revere the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights realize how subversive a document it can be. We all pay it lip service but many really don't understand what it means, or perhaps understand only too well. Michael Kammen in A Machine That Would Go Of Itself describes how Louis D. Oaks, the Los Angeles Chief of Police, had Upton Sinclair arrested in 1923 for reading the first three amendments to the Constitution in public. He was "kidnapped" by the police, moved to different station houses to confuse his lawyers, and held incommunicado. Re was charged with "discussing, arguing, orating, and debating certain thoughts and theories, which thoughts and theories were contemptuous of the constitution of the state of California, calculated to cause hatred and contempt of the government of the United States of America." ! One suspects Chief Oakes was not fluent in the meaning of the Constitution when he took his oath.
Sinclair was released only because a subordinate of the Chief secretly phoned an associate of Sinclair's so his lawyers could prepare a writ to get him out. Sinclair continued his meetings and helped found the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Chief Oakes was fired about a month later after being discovered in his car at night with a woman and a jug of whiskey. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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In this volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen explores the U.S. Constitution's place in the public consciousness and its role as a symbol in American life, from ratification in 1788 to our own time. As he examines what the Constitution has meant to the American people (perceptions and misperceptions, uses and abuses, knowledge and ignorance), Kammen shows that although there are recurrent declarations of reverence most of us neither know nor fully understand our Constitution. How did this gap between ideal and reality come about? To explain it, Kammen examines the complex and contradictory feelings about the Constitution that emerged during its preparation and that have been with us ever since. He begins with our confusion as to the kind of Union we created, especially with regard to how much sovereignty the states actually surrendered to the central government. This confusion is the source of the constitutional crisis that led to the Civil War and its aftermath. Kammen also describes and analyzes changing perceptions of the differences and similarities between the British and American constitutions; turn-of-the-century debates about states' rights versus national authority; and disagreements about how easy or difficult it ought to be to amend the Constitution. Moving into the twentieth century, he notes the development of a "cult of the Constitution" following World War I, and the conflict over policy issues that persisted despite a shared commitment to the Constitution.… (more)

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