The People’s Constitution

200 Years, 27 Amendments, and the Promise of a More Perfect Union

The 233-year story of how the American people have taken an imperfect constitution—the product of compromises and an artifact of its time—and made it more democratic

“When contemporary Americans cite ‘The Constitution,’ they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.”
—Justice Thurgood Marshall at a Bicentennial commemoration of the Constitution

Who wrote the Constitution? That’s obvious, we think: fifty-five men in Philadelphia in 1787. But much of the Constitution was actually written later, in a series of twenty-seven amendments enacted over the course of two centuries. The real history of the Constitution is the astonishing story of how subsequent generations have reshaped our founding document amid some of the most colorful, contested, and controversial battles in American political life. It’s a story of how We the People have improved our government’s structure and expanded the scope of our democracy during eras of transformational social change.

The People’s Constitution is an elegant, sobering, and masterly account of the evolution of American democracy.

From the addition of the Bill of Rights, a promise made to save the Constitution from near certain defeat, to the post–Civil War battle over the Fourteenth Amendment, from the rise and fall of the “noble experiment” of Prohibition to the defeat and resurgence of an Equal Rights Amendment a century in the making, The People’s Constitution is the first book of its kind: a vital guide to America’s national charter, and an alternative history of the continuing struggle to realize the Framers’ promise of a more perfect union.


“A crucial antidote to the spurious claim that the Constitution is frozen in time . . . the authors make it possible for us to imagine and embrace a struggle for a Fourth Founding in our time, rooted in social justice.”
—Burt Neuborne, Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties at NYU and author of When at Times the Mob Is Swayed and Madison’s Music
“A fine, accessible overview of American constitutional development . . . at once inspiring and chastening, underscoring the importance of establishing a true ‘People’s Constitution’ that responds to the new challenges that emerge over time.”
—Sanford Levinson, co-author (with Cynthia Levinson) of Fault Lines in the Constitution
“A carefully researched deep dive into America’s founding document and its amendments, The People’s Constitution injects color and life into constitutional history. At a time when so much of the American experiment seems precarious, The People’s Constitution is an urgent and necessary reminder of the promise—and challenges—of sustaining a government for and by the people.”
—Melissa Murray, Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law, New York University School of Law
“Readers at all levels interested in the Constitution’s history and future should find this work thoughtful and instructive.”
Library Journal
“I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for a long time. Professors Kowal and Codrington have done a remarkable public service by showing America what our Constitution really means and how it has come about. It is hard to think of a more patriotic act of scholarship than what is contained in these pages.”
—Congressman Jamie Raskin
The People’s Constitution . . . helps us understand that, whether for good or ill, the expressions of popular will through constitutional amendments may well alter the course of American democracy in the 21st century.”
—Russ Feingold, president, American Constitution Society, and former U.S. senator from Wisconsin
“Kowal and Codrington forcefully remind us that the Constitution must be understood not as it was written in 1787, but through the lens of how it has been amended.”
—Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law
The People’s Constitution is a fascinating story of how we changed our founding document through the difficult amendment process. It’s also a reminder that since 1787, popular movements have led the country to embrace democratic innovation and push through changes that made our nation more just and more equal—and our governing process more broadly participatory.”
—E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Our Divided Political Heart and co-author of 100% Democracy
“With a focus on the people and strategies that changed a nation by changing its Constitution, the book offers an insightful and captivating description of the country’s popular movements and the incredible challenges posed by the amendment process.”
—Caroline Fredrickson, Washington Monthly
“Legal scholars Kowal and Codrington debut with a rigorous yet accessible history of how the U.S. Constitution has been made ‘more democratic, more inclusive, and more responsive to the needs of a changing country’ through its amendments. . . . Incisive character profiles, brisk historical sketches, and lucid analyses of legal and political matters make this a fresh and invigorating take on the history of American democracy.”
Publishers Weekly

News and Reviews

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from The People’s Constitution to learn more about the nation’s “second founding” and the Fifteenth Amendment, the last of the Reconstruction amendments.

Washington Monthly

Read a review of The People’s Constitution in Washington Monthly.

Goodreads Reviews