Signing Their Rights Away by Denise Kiernan

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Signing Their Rights Away by Denise Kiernan

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: An accessible look at the lives of the thirty-nine creators and signatories of the United States Constitution, in an attractive hardback edition. Would make a nice gift for a fan of Americana, a fresh US citizen or an American teen with an interest in history.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Quirk Books
ISBN: 978-1594745201

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Many Americans believe that the Declaration of Independence is the cornerstone of the American democracy, the fountain-head of the American Way of Life and the American Dream. The 4th of July is the national holiday and often thought to be the single most important date in American history.

Signing Their Rights Away concentrates, however, on the slightly less legendary but hugely more important document, the United States Constitution which in 1778 replaced the Articles of the Confederation as the foundation document of the United States of America. The oldest still functioning document of this kind in the world, this constitution provides the systemic framework on which the governance – in fact, the whole existence – of the United States is based. Its creation, however, was difficult and fraught with disagreements. Of the 55 original delegates to the Philadelphia convention, only 39 remained to sign the document that was a result of a complex compromise worked out in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice ... and secure the Blessings of Liberty.

Kiernan and D'Agneze's book ties the tale of the struggles, arguments and principles behind the US Constitution to the life stories of the 39 signatories of the document.

Preceded by a short background note, a time-line and a cheat-sheet with the most important issues and terminology explained, the bulk of the volume is devoted to the biographies of the signatories. Each of those follows a standard format with a portrait, basic life information (dates of birth and death, age at signing, profession and a place of burial) and a short biographical chapter focusing – but by no means limited to - the signatory's role at the Philadelphia Convention. Each such chapter has a headline, a one-liner that summarises his role (The Signer Who Overcome Religious Discrimination), a personal characteristic (The Signer Who Was Destroyed by the Drink) or another important or catchy aspect of the signatory's life (The Signer Known throughout the World). Some are more eye catching then useful (The Signer with the Mysterious Middle Name) and some are delightfully pithy (The Signer Who... Oh, There is No Way to Dance Around the Issue, This Guy Was a Crook). Thus introduced, the thirty-nine parade before the modern reader in their fame and misfortune, affording a unique glimpse of the newly emerging elite of the New World and the document that immortalised them at least in name.

The volume – at least the hardback version I am reviewing – is very handsomely produced. The paper is heavy and cream-coloured, the typography attractive and the dust-jacket is a fold-out facsimile of the original constitution. Signing Their Rights Away would make an attractive gift or a keepsake if you had anybody to present it to.

This brings me to the subject of the intended audience of this volume. The style is breezy and conversational but erudite, accessible but not gratingly colloquial. The jokes, references to the political folklore and assumptions the authors make about myths and misconceptions a reader might have point very clearly at an U.S. readership. There is a lot of mythology associated with the American fathers of the nation, some of it known, but most of it obscure to people who did not grow up in the U.S. (a bit like Alfred's cakes) and Signing Their Rights Away joyously relates these stories to the historical fact. Despite that, there is very little assumed knowledge and a reader that knows close to nothing about the U.S. Constitution and is familiar with just the basic facts of the early American history can easily read the book with interest and enjoyment (though it obviously helps to know some context). I feel it is a title primarily aimed at young people but could easily interest adults too and I for myself enjoyed getting more closely acquainted with the U.S. Constitution or its signatories.

It has to be said that, apart from the short intro and the text on the facsimile (and in the appendix), there is little straightforward information or analysis of the Constitution or even the process of its creation itself in Signing Their Rights Away, although it's obliquely ever-present in biographical notes. Before picking up the book I expected more of a continuous narrative but I found the dip-in format surprisingly enjoyable.

If you happen to know somebody who has just became a freshly naturalised U.S. citizen Signing Their Rights Awaywould make an ideal gift (assuming they feel like celebrating the fact in any way). A U.S. teen keen on history or anybody else with interest in Americana might also like it.


If this subject appeals, Thomas Paine: His Life, His Time and the Birth of the Modern Nations by Craig Nelson offers a more extensive and in-depth look at one of the fathers of the American state. The lives of modern American politicians are charted in American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents, from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush by Nigel Hamilton while The American Future: A History by Simon Schama is a fascinating look at all aspects of the American history.

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