Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

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What did the U.S. Constitution originally mean, and who has understood its meaning best? Do we look to the intentions of its framers at the Federal Convention of 1787, or to those of its ratifiers in the states? Or should we trust our own judgment in deciding whether the original meaning of the Constitution should still guide its later interpretation? These are the recurring questions in the ongoing process of analyzing and resolving constitutional issues, but they are also questions about the distant events of the eighteenth century. In this book, Jack Rakove approaches the debates surrounding the framing and ratification of the Constitution from the vantage point of history, examining the range of concerns that shaped the politics of constitution-making in the late 1780s, and which illuminate the debate about the role that "originalism" should play in constitutional interpretation. In answering these questions, Rakove reexamines the classic issues that the framers of the Constitution had to solve: federalism, representation, executive power, rights, and the idea that a constitution somehow embodied supreme law. In each of these cases, Original Meanings suggests that Americans of the early Republic held a spectrum of positions, some drawn from the controversial legacy of Anglo-American politics, others reflecting the course of events since 1776, the politics of the Federal Convention, or the spirited public debate that followed.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Legal conservatives periodically call for judicial decisions based on an interpretation of the Constitution that accords with the "original intent" of those who wrote and ratified it. That's a vexed matter, as Stanford University historian Rakove (The Beginnings of National Politics) shows in this nuanced reconstruction of constitutional debates. First, he explores the difficulty of even divining the understanding of the framers. He goes on to explore James Madison's vital theorizing about federalism, the compromises involved in granting states equal Senate seats and counting slaves in the population, the concept of the Presidency and the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Rakove suggests that the country's political future-whether oriented toward the statehouses or the national capital-depends less on the framers and their constitutional language than on the actions of the American people in the framework that has been created. Moreover, he warns that even Madison's contemporary appeal to originalism was hardly a posture of neutrality. This detailed book will appeal most to students and scholars. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Surveys of Americans consistently reveal the troubling irony that we know very little about the document we profess to revere so highly: the U.S. Constitution. If more books like this nuanced, lucid work were written and read, perhaps this long-standing trend would begin to reverse itself. Rakove, editor of Interpreting the Constitiution: The Debate over Original Intent (Northeastern Univ., 1990), has made a significant and lasting contribution to the scholarship surrounding the adoption of the Constitution. While this persuasive treatment of the ideological and political background of the Constitution will appeal primarily to scholars in the field, the public would be well served by reading this book, particularly since so many appeals and debates are conducted on the meaning of the Constitution. Rakove convincingly shows that while the Constitution's meaning is not always self-evident and that simple and simple-minded appeals to "original intent" should be rejected, neither is the meaning of our foundational political and legal instrument beyond our understanding. Of especial note is Rakove's scrutiny of James Madison. This work ranks with well-known works by Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Bruce Ackerman, and others. Its focus on the importance of language is reason enough for placing it on one's shelf. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Stephen Kent Shaw, Northwest Nazarene Coll., Nampa, Id.
Kirkus Reviews
Rakove (History/Stanford Univ.; The Beginnings of National Politics, 1979, etc.) demonstrates the historical and theoretical complexity of the seemingly simple notion of a "jurisprudence of original intention"—the theory that judges can interpret the Constitution solely by reference to the opinions of its framers.

Since the 1980s, conservative legal scholars (e.g., Robert Bork) have espoused "originalism" in constitutional interpretation. Adding historical perspective to the legal debate, Rakove here dispels the idea that the Founding Fathers were a monolith; by examining the personal roles of the founders, particularly James Madison, who exercised perhaps the most significant influence over the framing of the Constitution, Rakove shows that the framers were a diverse lot, variegated in their view of the polity they had created. Cmpromise was integral to the politics of constitution-making, Rakove shows, and the need to forge a workable document took precedence over theoretical consistency. The survival of slavery was the most notorious, but not the only, matter on which the framers compromised; the very nuances of federalism itself were unaddressed, leaving a theoretical debate that contributed to the Civil War. Rakove seems to suggest that some of the framers (Jefferson, with his contempt for tradition, stands out), forthright as they were in recreating their political union after the failed Articles of Confederation, would be puzzled at our tendency to worship their creation. Rakove appears to contend that the Constitution was intended to be a living document, not a static, once-and-for-all enumeration of all individual rights and federal powers. "How," asks the author rhetorically, "could those who wrote the Constitution possibly understand its meaning better than those who had the experience of observing and participating in its operation?"

A unique contribution to the historical and legal debate surrounding the Constitution.

From the Publisher
"The most thoughtful and careful scholarly analysis to date of the extent to which the framers should control our contemporary understanding of the Constitution."—Stanley N. Katz, American Council of Learned Societies
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788191992
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Pages: 439

Table of Contents

Ch. I The Perils of Originalism 3
Ch. II The Road to Philadelphia 23
Ch. III The Madisonian Moment 35
Ch. IV The Politics of Constitution-Making 57
Ch. V The Concept of Ratification 94
Ch. VI Debating the Constitution 131
Ch. VII Federalism 161
Ch. VIII The Mirror of Representation 203
Ch. IX Creating the Presidency 244
Ch. X Rights 288
Ch. XI Madison and the Origins of Originalism 339
Coda 366
A Note on Sources 369
Notes 371
Index 421
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