Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. – book reviews
Kermit L. Hall
By Jack N. Rakove. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Pp. xvi, 439. $35.00.)
This book has two intertwined subjects. The first deals with the intellectual and political history of the framing of the Constitution; the second treats the appropriateness of invoking history as a tool to shape modern public policy.
Jack Rakove follows closely, but not slavishly, the insights of Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn. He also builds on his own excellent scholarship, most notably The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (1979). The current volume stresses that issues of constitutional thought were closely tied to political realities, including the assumption that the Articles of Confederation were the “true” form of national government. Much of Rakove’s analysis benefits from his insightful reading of the debates in the Philadelphia Convention and from a keen grasp of the various meanings associated with concepts such as federalism, republicanism, and democracy in the writings of both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. While cogently presented, the analysis does not, on its own, add significantly to our understanding of the political origins of the Constitution.
What this analysis does do, however, is inform wonderfully the book’s other subject, the role of original intent in the interpretation of the Constitution. To some readers, especially those familiar with the more-than-decade-long debate about original intent, the subject may seem hackneyed. Even the most ardent proponents of the originalist position (that the Constitution today should be interpreted as its framers understood it) have recognized the intellectual limits of their position. Yet Rakove has managed to push the discussion forward with exceptional intellectual honesty and a masterful demonstration of the historian’s craft.
Rakove does so by posing for the reader the competing views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on an originalist approach to the Constitution. “In the end,” Rakove writes, “it was Jefferson who better grasped the habits of democracy, Madison who better understood its perils” (367). Rakove clearly subscribes to the aphorism that “principles without origins are like tablets without Moses and the mountain.” Yet, he also makes the telling point that an originalist interpretation is inherently undemocratic, a fact that Madison accepted, but one that he balanced against the requirement that maintaining a constitutional republic depends on the ability of each generation to exercise “reflection and choice” in matters of constitutional interpretation. “Morally sustainable claims of equality,” Rakove argues, can never “be held captive . . . to the partial and incomplete understandings of 1789. . . (368). We simply do not know the past with sufficient authority to invoke it as our exclusive guide to the meaning of the Constitution.
Rakove’s intellectual history cogently informs his arguments about the limits of originalism. The result is a book that illuminates the distant past in all of its complexity, so much so that it cautions us not to allow our contemporary constitutional politics to be shaped conclusively by that history.
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