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.
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.