Encyclopedia of the American Constitution

Encyclopedia of the American Constitution


The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution is a six volume set treatise available both in print and online. It provides encyclopedic-type essays on many constitutional law topics written by leading constitutional law scholars, judges, and historians. It covers all aspects of the Constitution, including a chronology of the birth of the Constitution.

It also contains the biographies of individuals who have significantly impacted constitutional law, analysis of Supreme Court decisions, important events in the development of American Constitutional Law and articles covering historical periods of the Supreme Court. A glossary and case index are included.

The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution is edited by Leonard W. Levy and Kenneth Karst.


From The Legal Research and Writing Handbook: A Basic Approach for Paralegals (2008), by
Andrea B. Yelin, Hope Viner Samborn: “There are legal encyclopedias such as the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution that cover specialized subject areas.”


In 1987, Lee Dembart (a Los Angeles Times editorial writer and book reviewer) wrote the following review:

“Whatever else it is, the law represents society’s collective effort over centuries to devise rules under which people can live together more or less harmoniously and with a sense of fair play.

It is chauvinistic to say it but nonetheless true that this effort has reached its highest achievement in the English-speaking world, particularly in America, where the British legal tradition going back to Magna Charta found extremely fertile soil and flourished.

From Colonial times to the present day, the commitment of the American experience to pragmatism, openness and merit has created a society of unparalleled freedom, wealth and well-being. These values have also nurtured the development of the law (and, incidentally, given us more lawyers than we know what to do with).

More than any other people in the world, Americans have good reason to believe that the law will treat them fairly. We do not always get the outcome we desire, and mistakes can and do occur, but most of us believe that the system itself–the process–is essentially fair.

Two hundred years ago this summer, a group of extraordinary men met in Philadelphia and wrote the Constitution of the United States, Article III of which defines and creates the federal judiciary, topped by the Supreme Court. In the intervening years, the court has been called on to interpret the Constitution and the laws passed under it and apply them to the endless panoply of human affairs, each with a different shade of nuance that makes no two cases identical.

Strip away the trappings and the legal arguments from each case and the central questions before the court remain the same: What’s fair? What’s right? Where does justice lie?

As a result, a course in constitutional law is a course in American history told not as the usual story of wars, elections and economic events but from the perspective of ordinary people involved in disputes whose resolution has advanced our collective answers to these frequently complex and difficult questions.

The answers that the court has given have not always been right. Dred Scott, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Lochner vs. New York (which struck down a law limiting bakers to 60 hours’ work a week) and Korematsu vs. United States (upholding the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II) are all black marks in the history of the court.

But none of them is still good law. That is, the court has changed its mind, as society has. In general, and with notable exceptions–last year’s ruling upholding Georgia’s sodomy law, for example–for 200 years, the Constitution and the court have advanced civilization’s upward march.

This historical and social approach to Constitutional law is embodied in the “Encyclopedia of the American Constitution,” a wonderful and most-welcome collection of about 2,100 articles by 262 legal scholars and other experts on all manner of topics related to the basic document of American government.

If it is fair to say of an encyclopedia, “I couldn’t put it down,” that is an accurate description of this one. The articles range from as short as 50 words on a minor case or point of law to 6,000 words on major topics, themes or historical periods.

This is not just a reference book to be consulted when you’ve forgotten, say, the facts of Yick Wo vs. Hopkins or the holding in Fullilove vs. Klutznick, though it will serve that purpose. Many of the articles are trenchant, engaging, well-written syntheses of important legal and social issues not just for lawyers but for anyone interested in the application of reason to the organization of society.

The roster of contributors is a list of the country’s most distinguished constitutional scholars. In fact, it’s hard for book review editors to find reviewers for the encyclopedia because practically anybody who’s anybody has contributed to it.

Start browsing in the encyclopedia and you will be drawn in. There are historical articles, social articles, articles that demonstrate the development of ideas. Have you forgotten what McCulloch vs. Maryland was about and why it is important? The article by Leonard W. Levy of the Claremont Graduate School, who is the encyclopedia’a editor in chief, will set you straight. In this 1819 case, which Levy argues is second in importance only to the Constitution itself, Chief Justice John Marshall upheld the right of Congress to charter a national bank and denied Maryland the right to tax it. This gave broad powers to Congress not specified in the Constitution and established the supremacy of the federal government over the states.

Does the term “substantive due process” throw you? The masterful article by Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard on the subject will clear it up. Are you interested in the voir dire? The article by Charles H. Whitebread of USC succinctly tells you all you need to know. First Amendment? Several contributions by Steven H. Shiffrin of UCLA–Marketplace of Ideas, Obscenity, Right to Know, Listeners’ Rights–are clear, original pieces of work. Many of the articles by Kenneth L. Karst of UCLA, associate editor of the encyclopedia, make you ask, “How did he get so smart?”

Though it is an encyclopedia, and though it is an encyclopedia about law, the articles are anything but dry. The authors present their material evenhandedly, but they lace it with analysis and opinion. They can be provocative as well as informative.

There is an article about every justice who ever sat on the Supreme Court, and the article on Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist by Judge Frank H. Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is nothing short of adoring.

Easterbrook writes: “Most judicial opinions come in shades of gray, following a dull formula notable only for turgid prose and abundant footnotes. Justice Rehnquist’s opinions come closer to lavender than gray. They are relatively short and lively. . . . The Justice has simply chosen to write in an entertaining style. His opinions are read, and being read is the first step in being influential.” His description of Rehnquist’s opinions could be applied to the encyclopedia.

Of course, in any work of this length and scope, some errors are bound to slip through. The delightful article by G. Edward White on Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. says that Holmes proposed the “clear and present danger” test for abridging free speech in Abrams vs. United States. In fact, Holmes proposed that test in Schenck vs. United States, which in 1919 became the first free-speech case ever to reach the Supreme Court. The Abrams case followed a few months later. (The article on Abrams by Martin Shapiro has it right.)

There is also the question of how encyclopedic any encyclopedia can be. In the preface, the editors write, “The reader will find an article on almost any topic reasonably conceivable.” I looked up Ohralik vs. Ohio State Bar Assn., a case upholding disciplinary action against an ambulance-chasing lawyer, but I couldn’t find it.

Aviam Soifer’s article on the Carolene Products case (1938) correctly says that Footnote Four of the opinion is “undoubtedly . . . the best known, most controversial footnote in constitutional law.” That’s where the court said that in some circumstances, the presumption that legislation is constitutional may be inappropriate and heightened judicial scrutiny may be required. But there is neither an entry nor a cross-reference in the encyclopedia under “Footnote Four,” though that is generally how it is referred to.

But don’t let these quibbles detract from the quality of this work. The editors and contributors have done a terrific job amassing material and presenting it with intelligence and flair in just the right context and at just the right level. The volumes are handsomely printed in double columns with type large enough to be easily read. Most of the articles include useful bibliographies.

In the interest of disclosure, it should be noted that the Times Mirror Foundation, an arm of the company that publishes this newspaper, was among the many underwriters of the encyclopedia project.”

Encyclopedia of the American Constitution from the Publisher

This 6-vol. set of the 1987 Dartmouth Medal winner includes all of the material from the original 4-vol. set and 1992 Supplement, as well as updated original articles and completely new
articles covering recent concepts and court cases since 1992. New material is
alphabetically integrated throughout the set. Appendices include a case index and primary documents. Among the new articles in this edition are adoption, race, and the Constitution; birthright citizenship; Clinton v. Jones; disability discrimination; hate crimes; modern militias; Violence Against Women Act; and more.

The articles in the set provide comprehensive coverage of all aspects of constitutional law, as well as biographies of people who have had an impact on our government’s legal framework (Supreme Court Justices, Presidents, Cabinet Members, Lawyers, and more). Judicial decisions handed down by the Supreme Court are also analyzed. Congressional laws, executive orders and other public acts that impacted our legal structure are also examined. Finally articles also cover historical periods (of the Court as well as of US Historical eras). Contributors all focused solely on the constitutional aspects of the many topics covered in this six-volume set and they are professionals who also had their own impact — lawyers, historians, and political scientists.

Other Reference Works of U.S. Constitutional Law

  • Constitutional Law Dictionary
  • The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History
  • The Founders’ Constitution
  • The Language of the Constitution : a sourcebook and guide to the ideas, terms, and vocabulary used by the framers of the United States Constitution
  • The Exhaustive Concordance to the United States Constitution
  • The Constitution of the United States of America, analysis and interpretation: annotations of cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to …
  • Constitutional rights sourcebook
  • Modern constitutional law
  • A companion to the United States Constitution and its amendments
  • Constitutional amendments, 1789 to the present
  • Encyclopedia of Constitutuional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues, 1789-2010. 3rd ed.
  • Encyclopedia of Constitutuional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues, 1789-2002. 2nd ed.
  • The Bill of Rights
  • Encyclopedia of the First Amendment
  • The Constitutional Convention of 1787: a comprehensive encyclopedia of America’s founding
  • A Practical Companion to the Constitution : how the Supreme Court has ruled on issues from abortion to zoning
  • The Oxford guide to United States Supreme Court Decicions
  • Landmark Supreme Court Cases: a reference guide
  • Landmark Decisions of the United States Supreme Court
  • Supreme Court Cases on Gender and Sexual Equality 1787-2001
  • Supreme Court Yearbook
  • Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court

See Also

American Jurisprudence (encyclopedia)
The American and English Encyclopedia of Law
U.S. Constitution law resources
List of Constitution Law Periodicals
Some U.S. Constitution law key topics
U.S. Constitution main problems
United States main topics in the Encyclopedia
Encyclopedia of Public International Law
Bouvier’s Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia, 1914
Jurisdiction in American law



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