Reviewed 1/23/2018

The Grouchy Historian, by Asner & Weinberger

An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs
Ed Asner
Ed. Weinberger
New York: Simon & Schuster, October 2017




ISBN-13: 978-1-5011-6602-0
ISBN-10: 1-5011-6602-6 336pp. HC $26.00
There are times in our nation's history when the souls of men and women are sorely tried; when words are stripped of their fixed meanings and the power of reason itself seems to be in abeyance; when the lessons of history are discarded and the forces of despotism and greed seek to bend every known fact, every noble impulse to their service.

We live in such a time.1

The purpose of this book is to utterly and completely demolish the notion held by right-wing Christians that the God they profess to worship was entwined in the lives of the Founding Fathers of our country and enshrined in the founding documents they wrote — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence — and the policies they seek to justify thereby. Policies such as the prohibition of same-sex marriage and the right (or requirement) of public schools to impose the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer (but only Christian prayer) on their students.

Asner succeeds in accomplishing that purpose.

He does so by comparing their assertions about the Constitution and the Founders with actual documents like the Federalist Papers and the letters the Founders sent to each other and to prominent people, notably clergymen of the day.2 He also examines the economic motivations of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. They were, almost to a man, wealthy men who became wealthier thanks to the form of government they created. Also they were very human, hardly the demigods that some imagine. They themselves knew their work was imperfect and would have to change as the years went by. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind . . . each generation has a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness . . . Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched.

– Pages 260-261

But that's only the warmup. Mr. Asner goes on to dramatize the process of writing the Constitution through a fictional journal kept by Billie, an actual slave to James Madison who attended him during those five months in Philadelphia.3

Asner moves from the general to the specific, historical figures to contemporary, with letters addressed to Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mark Levin, and Ann Coulter. He shows himself to be a worthy member of the clan of curmudgeons in Chapter 14, "Immigration and Ann Coulter." This chapter is a valuable summary of the history of eugenics in the U.S.

In sum, the language of this book is not very refined or elegant — most definitely not "politically correct." But its research is impeccable, and its arguments are unassailable. We have, says Asner, a nation built on a framework designed to balance the contending forces its very human Founders understood from their study of history and from their own lives. He invites us to delve into that history and decide once again if we can keep the republic the Founders bequeathed to us: a republic always beset by the pressures of short-sighted self-interest, but bearing within it the promise of accomplishments surpassing anything known before.

An Appendix reproduces the entire text of the Constitution. There is no Index, but there are extensive Endnotes, and a Bibliography listing 161 books, 29 articles, 36 Web and news sources, 22 law cases and 50 "other sources." I give this book full marks and rate it a keeper.

1 Of course, the same was true of every time since America was born. But some times are more perilous than others; and forces align in our time to heighten the danger.
2 Clergymen such as the Reverend Dr. John Mason of New York, who called Thomas Jefferson a "confirmed infidel."
3 This draws on the biography of Madison by Lynne Cheney (yes, that Lynne Cheney).
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