Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

The Constitution: The Essential User's Guide, edited by Richard Stengel and introduced by former Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Published by TIME Books, 2012.

As members of the U.S. armed forces we take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States; yet for many Americans, understanding the mechanics of this document is reduced to sound bites and shallow slogans. As one rises in rank and assumes a leadership position within our military, they encounter many decisions that are made within the protections afforded by our Constitution from battlefield processing of enemy combatants to the rights of due process extended to a service member accused of alleged misconduct or criminal behavior. TIME Books has published a short yet powerfully thought-provoking book on the United States Constitution that is worth reading.

The book opens with an introduction by Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who made history be being named the first female Justice of the Supreme Court. Since her retirement in 2006 she has been involved in the noble project of educating more Americans on the importance of understanding the basics of the American system of government using the technology of the internet. She writes with concern about the decline in civic education and the direct relationship this has on our democracy, political participation, and the choices the electorate makes in the 21st century.

Richard Stengel, managing editor of TIME Magazine, makes a compelling argument that the question is not what would the founding fathers have done, but rather, what principles of theirs conceived in 1787 must be preserved? After all, the 55 framers of the Constitution did not know about DNA, the atom, collateralized debt obligations, germ theory, the internet, and much more. As the Constitution was born in crisis, Stengel reminds us of the crises that triggered generations of Americans to debate the meaning of the Constitution such as civil rights, the Watergate scandal, the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 9/11; each a constant discussion of meaning of those 7,200 words. He then takes the five most recent issues of our time, and highlights the article in the Constitution to expose readers to various interpretations from contraception coverage, intervention in Libya, the debt ceiling, Obamacare, and finally immigration. Readers will come away better informed about various sides of the issues.

The book continues with a discussion of how the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention compromised to shape the document and encourages readers to expand their knowledge by reading "The Federalist Papers," and James Madison's "Notes on the Constitutional Convention." These two books are not easy reads, which is why I recommend this TIME book as a start to your journey exploring the Constitution. The book ends with a reading of the Constitution itself, with each section and subsequent amendments containing an amplifying discussion on what the compromise was about, and current issues in American politics in which this section played a part in defining key issues of our history. This slim book is worth your time, and those wanting a better understanding of the principles and ideas that make us American will enjoy spending time reading this book.

Editor's Note: Cmdr. Aboul-Enein maintains a regular book review column in the Naval District Washington newspaper, the Waterline. He wishes to thank his spouse for fostering his passion for American history and for discussing this and other books over the years.