Akhil Reed Amar’s The Words That Made Us arrives at a crucial time, when American politics are plagued by bellicose polarization, when Left and Right have come to view each other as a threat to the American way of life. A celebrated scholar, the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University is eager to provide a “usable past,” as he puts it. His highly ambitious telling of the early republic’s fierce conflicts over the meaning of the American Revolution and the Constitution is intended not just for fellow academics but also for a public distressingly ignorant of its heritage. “Without a strong memory of one’s own past,” he asks, “how can Americans live together?”

Amar has always been a strong advocate of employing originalist language for liberal ends, and here he once again pays close attention to the words of the Constitution. But his nearly 900-page tome comes alive when he pits the leading founders against each other, arbitrating their disputes with original, decisive judgments: George Washington, not James Madison, is the “Father of the Constitution”; Alexander Hamilton, not Thomas Jefferson, is the principal theorist and practitioner of the country’s new republicanism; and, in a provocative take on the polarizing 1800 election, John Marshall, not Jefferson or John Adams, was the worthiest dignitary to lead the

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