When we think of American society today, it’s hard to imagine a citizen without some sort of electronic device in their hands. Limitless information, both accurate and entirely inaccurate, is at our fingertips, complete with flashy lights, bright colors, and catchy pop phrases to snag and hold our attention. Whereas I believe this has many advantages, I also believe it has limited our attention spans for the mundane, even if said mundane information is of great importance. I can think of no better example of this than the United States Constitution.
The United States Constitution has an enormous impact on the life of every single American citizen, whether they are aware of it or not. It is the foundation of our political structure, the basis of our laws. However, I have met few fellow Americans, including myself, who truly know and understand this document which defines our way of life. How can this be? Why are so many of us living in ignorance of our own civil liberties? I’m sure there are a multitude of complex reasons involving our public education system, parental priorities, the cycle of poverty, and various other factors. But, one very simple reason to be considered, is that the United States Constitution is an incredibly boring read.
Well, not anymore folks. Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell have managed to translate this old, dry, sleep-inducing, highly important document into a colorful, imaginative, entertaining, thought-provoking, equally important piece of art. The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, is an ingenious way to grab and hold the attention of we, the people of today. It is the constitution for the modern American and I would recommend that it be available on the shelf of every home and every school in the United States.
What drew me into this graphic narrative immediately, was the pre-constitution history it provided. Hennessey and McConnell start us at the Revolutionary War, providing a dark, wintery scene of soldiers rallying the night before a battle (6). It strikes an emotional chord, appealing to relatable human drama, pulling the audience in with the anticipation of action. Then, the reader is provided with two key pieces of information that demonstrate just how radical of an idea the United States Constitution was at that time. First off, monarchs, dictators, and royalty had always ruled the world, their claim to the thrown having only to do with birthrights and wealth and nothing to do with their actual leadership skills (Hennessey, McConnell 8). Second, philosophers, for example John Locke, questioned the validity of a government controlled by someone born into it and argued for a government that would be constructed and controlled by all of its citizens, a concept so unorthodox that Locke kept his identity as a philosophical author a secret, for fear of his ideology getting him killed (Hennessey, McConnell 10). By providing this historical backdrop before introducing the articles of the U.S. Constitution, Hennessey and McConnell are cleverly rousing their audience to root for the creation of the U.S Constitution. This allows for the articles to become an exciting read instead of a confusing legal document.
Later, as Hennessey and McConnell dive into the constitutional amendments, they continue to keep their readers captivated by touching on several historical events and land-mark court cases which inspired the amendments. One of my favorite examples of this is when they link the nineteenth amendment, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (U.S. Const. amend. XIX), to images of women marching for the right to vote and hugging each other at the polls as they drop their ballots in the box (Hennessey, McConnell 129). Again, providing a historical context for which to frame the constitution in, helps to keep the reader engaged.
McConnell’s art is cleverly entertaining, a perfect hook for the modern American. If history alone isn’t enough to keep you interested, the dramatic realism and quirky metaphors portrayed through McConnell’s artwork is bound to keep the pages turning. The purpose behind the three-fifths compromise will forever be burned into my memory because of McConnell’s rather disturbing imagery of black slaves segmented into only three-fifths of a person (31), and it would be difficult to forget about the Articles of Confederation after seeing them being resurrected, much like Frankenstein’s monster, into the three branches of the U.S. Government (19). McConnell captures human emotion well, and does a great job at setting the tone for the content of the page through his use of human body language and facial expression. Every page of this graphic adaptation is ripe with relatable human experiences. This allows the readers to feel the gravity of the moment as Hennessey fills in the details with his writing.
Hennessey manages to provide all the content of the constitution in a fashion that makes for a quick read. If you’ve ever read the constitution in its original form, you know that the writing style is in old English and not exactly reader friendly for today’s audience. Have you ever read legal documents? Maybe something you’re supposed to sign and you really want to make sure you’re not selling your soul in the process? Unless you have a law degree, I’m going to guess that it was relatively confusing. Similarly, reading the United States Constitution is an exercise in patience, often requiring a person to reread sentences in order to fully grasp what the founding fathers were trying to get at. I believe Hennessey succeeds in capturing the spirit of the original document while translating it in a way that is easy to grasp for the average adult or even young adult reader.
There is little room for improvement in this graphic adaptation of the constitution. However, I would warn readers that there is an assumption being made about the level of historical knowledge the reader has going in. For example, Hennessey and McConnell briefly refer to the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party, as historical occasions which triggered the Revolutionary War (15), however, they give few details about the events themselves, probably presuming that the reader already understands their significance. Furthermore, when they are explaining the circumstances which pushed through the amendments, they often refer to court cases, for example Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. and Springer v. U.S. (127), but neglect to provide any specific details on the cases. Granted, for the sake of keeping this adaptation short and to the point, I understand that certain historical facts are probably best left out, however, I personally would have enjoyed an index at the end of the book which better explained those historical landmarks. That being said, if you happen upon a historical reference you’re unsure of, you can always whip out that smart phone and use the google machine.
The combination of Hennessey’s straight-forward writing style and McConnell’s entertaining artwork makes for an appealing interpretation of the United States Constitution. It’s a fast read, which is always appreciated in today’s busy-bee society and it is structured in a way that will help readers retain the information it provides. I would recommend this adaptation to any high school teacher or college professor looking for a way to keep their students interested in the constitution, as well as to any adult interested in having a deeper understanding of their civil rights and the inner workings of their government.
The United States Constitution is too important of a document for the people of today to neglect. If we do, the people of tomorrow will suffer for it. For how can we protect the sanctity of a system we know nothing about? And, perhaps there are still flaws within the system that need to be addressed. But how can we grow without first understanding our foundation? I appreciate Jonathan Hennessey’s and Aaron McConnell’s efforts in giving this document new life. I believe they have succeeded in figuring out how to capture and hold the interest of the modern American.