For those who like to argue with people who claim to know what the founding fathers were thinking and that we should adhere strictly to their plan Rakove gives the best short ish history of the writing of the US constitution, pointing out along the way that the whole thing was basically a compromise to keep as many interests happy as possible Take that, Scalia Thomas James Madison was smarter than the both of you combined. It was DENSE and occaisionally enlightening Often I would find myself realizing I had no idea what had been said for the previous 15 minutes You really have to love the subject to find it interesting On the other hand, it was NOT depressing unlike many other Pulitzer Prize winning books This exhaustively researched and beautifully written account of the politics and ideas behind the making of the U.S Constitution is a model of history at its very best Through close and scrupulously fair attention to the arguments of both those who drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787 and the anti Federalists who opposed its ratification, Rakove brings to life the political issues and conflicts that shaped the provisions of the Constitution and informed the often conflicting meanings that the different groups attached to it The result is a picture nuanced and complex than that offered by the two sides in the current debate over how the Constitution should be interpreted Readers will come away from the book understanding the futility of assigning hard and fast original meanings to words crafted, in a dynamic political process, to defuse conflicts and compromise differences among the founders as they sought to create an effective national government But they will also better understand the consistency of purpose behind the work and ideas of James Madison, who, for Rakove, is the central political and intellectual force behind the Constitution And they will gain a deeper appreciation for the high level of thinking, argument, and rhetoric among the nation s top politicians in the early years of the nation intellectual firepower that is so often absent in our politics today. I m giving this book 5 stars because it is a monumental achievement and an exhaustive review of the available information about the drafting, ratification, and interpretation of the Constitution It is a scholarly work that deserves the Pulitzer Prize that it won But it is not light reading It is, in fact, a difficult read Mostly I m proud of myself for having gotten through it and I m relieved there won t be a test Despite the difficulty, I learned a great deal, particularly about how fragile the whole process was They performed a miracle there s no other explanation. Rakove s Pulitzer Prize winning work on understanding the intent of the original framers of the Constitution is a timely work, especially given recent Supreme Court nomination battles Perhaps Rakove s views can best be summarized by the following two quotes, the first attributed to Madison, When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated Who said the framers weren t postmodern in their thinking The second quote, by Thomas Jefferson, Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead Though I believe Rakove to be correct in arguing that the constitution is not a document set in stone, yet I have profound concerns with the direction where thinkers like Rakove have, and will take us This is a journey beset with many dangers. Professor Rakove s work is a must read for anyone interested in the idea of original intent In his opening chapter The Perils of Originalism he raises a couple of questions Whose intent and understanding are we to look at, the Framers or the Ratifiers Are we to look at specific individuals, just a few, or the entirety of those Framers and or Ratifiers Inasmuch as several of them changed their opinions over the course of their live, at what time in their life are we to look The next couple of chapters describe the road to the Philadelphia Convention and Madison s major role in making it happen But it is the chapter entitled Debating the Constitution that is the meat of the topic.The author notes that both sides feared that cunning leaders would manipulate even well meaning citizens A note unwarranted idea considering what is occurring today When considering discussions in the contemporary press one needs to keep in mind that the press was predominately Federalist, tho several papers attempted to be somewhat even handed Most people know that James Madison took copious notes, though not necessarily verbatim notes during the convention and that he, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, but Luther Martin, an Anti Federalist who refused to sign the Constitution wrote a serial history of the Convention His history is an account of its maneuvers and factions which confirmed in the minds of many that its secret history was a tale of subversion Among Madison s fears and Rakove quotes Madison regarding a public decision on a constitutional dispute could never be expected to turn on the true merits of the question He feared that passions would overrule reason Again one could argue that this is currently occurring The author also notes that the writers of the Federalist Papers had their own doubts they left privately D oubts that left both men convinced that the Constitution might prove seriously, even fatally, flawed because it lacked key provisions each respectively favored According to Rakove, Madison apparently felt it better to trust future experience to identify remediable defects in an adopted Constitution than to risk the uncertainty of a second convention Rakove goes on to describe the various questions and debates during and after the Convention Among the Anti Federalist questions was which features of the Constitution were most likely to prove vulnerable to manipulation Rakove suggests in his section on Madison and the Origins of Originalism that the debate started even before ratification and continued after During the first session of Congress there was a debate and one of the representatives wrote that another representative had spoken to Pubius and Publius informed him that upon mature reflection he had changed his opinion regarding the issue of government officers removal by the president When the Jay Treaty came up for approval Madison apparently had changed his mind about the House involvement in treaties Rakove notes that when discussing the Treaty the House was prepared to entertain interpretations reconstructing the positions of framers ratifiers and the people He continues t he ensuing disagreements prompted a few representatives, on both sides, to suggest that recourse to historical evidence was futile Having earlier read Science and the Founding Fathers Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison by Bernard Cohen I find a different light cast on original intent These were enlightened men, men of the enlightenment, who reasoned and adapted to changing times They often referred to the new government as an experiment which can lead one to believe they were able to change their opinions when new evidence came forth Perhaps the Original Intent of the framers, aside from forming a stronger central government, was to create a living constitution that would change with the times. One of the most timely and compelling reads of the last 5 years for me While written in 1996 Rakove s work illuminates todays constitutional debates with a detailed examination of the public record and the crucial Political dynamics that informed the founders and ratifiers in their work While this work may be best absorbed and utilized by legal professionals in their day jobs, it is essential and valuable reading for us ordinary citizens trying to gain a foothold in the slippery back and forth emanating from commentators and politicians of all stripes Professor Rakove did great service to us all by shredding the constitutional debates of so much hysterical and historically misleading arguments to deliver such an intellectually powerful presentation of that extraordinarily unique document that shapes our lives every day and for which we have to thank the Founders In Rakove s writing we see the the hard work of creation, debate and interpretation spread before us One of my favorites though I will Have to read it again to savor all its benefits completely. The notion that the original intentions of the framers should guide subsequent generations of Americans begs the question, Who were the framers Were these framers in lock step agreement about the meaning of the words in the Constitution Can we really know the intentions of those who, like Madison and Hamilton, tried to conceal their true intentions from the Congress, their adversaries, and the public Are we to be forever frozen in the late eighteenth century Robert Jackson, paraphrasing Lincoln, noted that the Constitution is not a suicide pact Neither is it an iron maiden.On the other hand, if the words of the Constitution can mean anything at all, what is the point of having a written constitution in the first place The simple truth of the matter is that the Constitution is a political document, as are its several amendments The courts, too, are political institutions and politics shapes our evolving understanding of the U.S Constitution.As a wise man me once said, You can t take politics out of politics. This is a deeply and meticulously researched book, by one of the leading Constitutional scholars historians Jack Rakove as distinct from constitutional law he is not a lawyer The scholarship is superb and it is as indispensable for politics and law as it is profound historically.The book is comprehensive it covers James Madison and his political philosophy writings preceding and during the making of the Constitution the period preceding and leading to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, at Philadelphia the politics during the making of the Constitution the idea of ratification the debates between Federalists and anti Federalists during the ratification process federalism, presidency, representation and Bill of Rights the idea of legal originalism and generally philosophy and ideas that were infused into the Constitution.The general thesis of the book is that originalism as a judicial and political philosophy is untenable, not only because it is difficult, as a historical matter, to ascertain the intention of the framers and understanding of the text during and after ratification, but even importantly because the very premise of originalism is questionable There exists no compelling reason to consider original intent, meaning and understanding to be paramount to our understandings today The Constitution s primary usefulness is not mainly in its strict text, but in its ability to provide general guidelines for the functioning of our gov t and democracy In that sense, it is a flexible and living document, and cannot simply be reduced to a strict text to be interpreted narrowly, guided by simplistic historical narrative This book serves as a scholarly antidote to originalism, grounded in a realist approach to history.WARNING The book is very dense in both senses of the word firstly, it is physically dense small font, single spaced Therefore, don t be deceived by its mere 370 pages of reading the rest are endnotes, index, etc It feels like at least double of that Secondly, due to its intellectual rigor, it s a difficult read And this coming from a lawyer I have read quite a few difficult texts in my life So do yourself a favor DO NOT skim through it It is to be read slowly and thoroughly, so that it can be fully absorbed and understood, as well as appreciated.This book would be perfect for any serious students of history, political science and philosophy, law and politics However, I would also recommend it to any casual student of history as well, and I am one. From Abortion To Same Sex Marriage, Today S Most Urgent Political Debates Will Hinge On This Two Part Question What Did The United States Constitution Originally Mean And Who Now Understands Its Meaning Best Rakove Chronicles The Constitution From Inception To Ratification And, In Doing So, Traces Its Complex Weave Of Ideology And Interest, Showing How This Document Has Meant Different Things At Different Times To Different Groups Of Americans
Jack Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science and by courtesy law at Stanford, where he has taught since 1980 His principal areas of research include the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political practice and theory of James Madison, and the role of historical knowledge in constitutional litigation.
- 457 pages
- Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
- Jack N. Rakove
- 21 March 2017 Jack N. Rakove