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Original Meanings

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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About the Author

Jack N. Rakove is the author of six books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize. Rakove is the editor of seven other books, including The Unfinished Election of 2000.


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.

"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 " 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 -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

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.)

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