Americans resorted to arms in 1775 not to establish new liberties but to defend old ones, explains constitutional historian Leonard W. Levy in this history of the origins of the Bill of Rights. Unencumbered by a rigid class system, an arbitrary government, or a single established church squelching dissent, colonial Americans understood freedom in a far more comprehensive and liberal way than the English, Levy shows. He offers here a panoramic view of the liberties secured by the first ten amendments to the Constitution - a penetrating analysis of the background of the Bill of Rights and of current legal understandings of each of its provisions.
When Americans began drafting a Bill of Rights suitable for their new republic, they were actually following longstanding Anglo-American tradition. In a well-researched, though hardly pathbreaking, history, Levy (Blasphemy, etc.), professor emeritus at the Claremont Graduate School, devotes chapters to important protections: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, habeas corpus, prohibitions on bills of attainder, etc. With each topic, he delves into its sources--English common law, Enlightenment philosophy, colonial state constitutions--ably characterizing the social and historical forces that influenced the evolution of each right. It's an academic approach that's useful as history even if it solves few contemporary problems. Take, for example, Levy's discussion of the right to bear arms. When ratified, he notes, the Second Amendment created an individual rather than a collective right. But this settles the matter only if one believes that legal and constitutional history stopped in 1789. As recent constitutional theorists (e.g., Bruce Ackerman) have noted, law, including constitutional law, evolves, effectively undergoing amendment through a gradual consensus-building process involving courts, legislatures and the public. Indeed, Levy's own keen historical account illustrates how legal concepts have changed over time. His failure to confront or even acknowledge how this dynamism is at work in contemporary debates renders this book ultimately of only academic interest. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.