Reviews | Where my research has taken me lately

Instead of an extended take on a particular issue or question, I thought I’d use this weekend’s newsletter to share some of what I’ve read this summer. My work for The Times involves a lot of research, and while much of what I learn shows up in my work in the form of quotes and other direct references, much does not. You can consider this playlist as a snapshot of my head right now and what I’m thinking.

At the end of June, I spent a week at my parents’ house in the South, during which I read two books by Eric J. Segall, professor of law at the Georgia State University College of Law. The first was “Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court Is Not a Court and Its Justices Are Not Judges”. The second was “originalism as faith”. These slim volumes pack a big punch. In “Supreme Myths”, Segall argues that the Supreme Court is and always has been a political body that adjudicates public policy, not a court in the traditional sense, bound by clear precedents and rules of interpretation. And in “Originalism as Faith,” he targets the practice of “originalism,” a method of constitutional interpretation that purports to center the original public meaning of the Constitution. His argument, in short, is that doctrine is little more than a pretext for achieving conservative political results.

This summer, I decided to re-read “Free Soil, Free Labour, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party” by Eric Foner. It’s a comprehensive analysis of the early days of the Republican Party as well as a compelling look at the political world of the 1840s and 1850s, when the expansion of slavery became the main divide in American politics. Foner devotes an entire chapter to Salmon P. Chase, the Ohio politician who did more than almost anyone else at the time to formulate a political program built around the abolition of slavery. I finished the chapter and the book, wanting to know more about Chase, so I’m currently reading “Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival”, which was released earlier this year.

I have a few books on my shelf that I haven’t really read, and one of them is Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals and Reformers in the Making of the Nation. It is an edited volume about the men and women who understood the American Revolution as a revolution of ideas and ideals, the basis on which to build a more just and egalitarian world, and not just a rebellion to free themselves from capricious foreign power. It consists of 22 essays from a Who’s Who of American historians covering a wide range of subjects and individuals. I’m about halfway there, and two standouts for me are Jill Lepore’s essay on Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” and Gary Nash’s essay on citizen leaders in the revolutionary era of Philadelphia.

The other book I finished this summer was “Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention” by Mary Sarah Bilder. Regular readers will know that I am very interested in the life and work of James Madison, and this book is a forensic history of his notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which are still among the most complete documents in the drafting of the Constitution. in Philadelphia that summer. Bilder places the notes in their literary context and details their composition from beginning to end. But what’s particularly fascinating is his look at Madison’s long overhaul process — a process that began as soon as the convention ended and will continue for the rest of his life. Bilder shows how Madison’s shifting views on Republican government, on slavery, and on her allies and adversaries in Philadelphia altered the ratings. They were, like the Constitution for which they were written, a work in progress.

I’ve got a few other things on my plate – I’m still browsing Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins’ “The Age of Federalism” and hoping to start Michael Kazin’s new Democratic Party story, “What it took to win,” as well as Rachel A. Shelden’s book, “Washington Brotherhood,” about social life in antebellum Washington — but that’s where my reading is right now.


My only column this week focused on the misguided history and thinking behind the “independent state legislature” theory, which would give state legislatures near absolute control over federal elections and the distribution of presidential voters. My argument is that the Americans have always recoiled from these attempts to interfere with the right of the people to choose their president.

This doctrine poses many problems beyond the results for which it was designed. Some are logical — the theory seems to suggest that state legislatures are somehow separate and distinct from state constitutions — and some are historical. And among the historical problems is the fact that Americans have never really wanted to entrust their state legislatures with the kind of sweeping electoral powers that this theory would confer.


Here’s something I took years ago with a large format camera that I no longer own. This is downtown Charlottesville from the top of a parking lot. To achieve this effect, I raised and lowered the lens relative to the film plane. It’s called tilt-shift, and while you can create it using software, I think it looks much cooler when done in camera and on film.


We eat something like this several times a month. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s quite versatile in that it goes well with different types of vegetables and condiments. The recipe comes from The New York Times Cooking and the author, Melissa Clark, advises serving it over rice. But if you want to have it with fresh chapati or paratha, that would be fine too.

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 1 large onion, minced

  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

  • 4 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced

  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin

  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika

  • 2 teaspoons garam masala

  • 1 small cinnamon stick

  • 1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled plum tomatoes

  • 1 (15 ounce) can coconut milk

  • 2 cans (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained

  • Ground cayenne (optional)

  • Cooked white rice, for serving

  • ½ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, for serving

directions

Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in onion and ½ tsp salt; cook until browned and browned around edges, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. (Don’t be tempted to increase the heat to medium-high; keeping the heat to medium ensures even browning without burning the butter.)

Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute. Stir in the cumin, paprika, garam masala and cinnamon stick, and cook for another 30 seconds.

Add the tomatoes with their juice. Using a large spoon or flat spatula, break up and mash the tomatoes in the pan (or you can use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the tomatoes while they’re still in the can). Stir in the coconut milk and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and continuing to mash the tomatoes if necessary to help them break down.

Stir in the chickpeas and a pinch of cayenne pepper if desired. Return the pan to low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Serve over white rice and garnish with cilantro.