The Odd Clauses

As you know, the President of the United States takes an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” And of course our current president does that faithfully — right? — but not everyone is familiar with every single one of the Constitution’s clauses, not even our current president. BU Law professor Jay Wexler examines ten of these clauses in his fascinating and often amusing book, The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions. BTW, don’t make the mistake that I initially made: the title does not refer to the 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc., clauses but to the less familiar clauses.

When I first saw this book, I knew I had to read it, as I had been fascinated by constitutional law ever since middle school. I know that the constitution doesn’t appear at first glance to relate to either of my primary interests — linguistics and math — but in fact there are deep connections to both. The precision and logic of legal language are clearly linguistic in nature and mathematical in reasoning. The young Abraham Lincoln famously sharpened his legal reasoning skills by reading Euclid late into the night (by candle light, of course), and he often reflected Euclidean logic in his legal arguments.

Perhaps you were surprised by my saying (in the opening paragraph above) that The Odd Clauses is “often amusing” — not what you would expect for a book on constitutional law! But it’s true nevertheless. Wexler has not written a textbook here, not a dry legal tome that you read out of professional obligation. Of course it’s not light fiction either; you won’t find it speedy reading like many mysteries and some science fiction novels. But it’s not a slog. It will repay your careful attention by sparking joy and enlightenment.

I do need to mention that there are a few startling errors, startling only because they are coming from the keyboard of a professor of constitutional law. Here are four that jumped out at me:

  • “The Senate holds a hearing on whether to impeach a president…” (p. 4)
    This is absolutely not true, as Wexler knows full well. It’s the House of Representatives that does that. Only after the House impeaches does the Senate hold a hearing on whether to convict. This matters — it especially matters right now!
  • “Here’s a question that sort of mirrors the old ‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears the tree fall in the forest, has a tree really fallen in the forest?’” (p. 10).
    No! That’s not the old question. It’s “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’m not being pedantic here: this is a fundamental change in the saying, which relates to sensation and perception. You can look it up.
  • ”the measure of force known in the metric system as ‘newton-seconds’…” (p. 22)
    My physics is extremely rusty at this point, but isn’t that impulse rather than force? Perhaps I’m wrong.
  • Instead of “chief justice of the United States,” Wexler twice refers to the “chief justice of the Supreme Court.” (pp. 46, 84)

Maybe I’m just picking nits because I’m a math teacher, but I don’t think so. As I said above, legal language has to reflect mathematical precision.

It’s still a good book.

Categories: Books