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Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution
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80 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2004
Just what sorts of ideas were going on in the Framers' minds when the drafted the federal constitution? This book provides great insight into the ideas, concepts and intellectual history and framework that the Framers were operating upon.
An extremely capable historian and writer, McDonald starts out by noting some important considerations facing the Framers: protecting the life, liberty and property of citizens; their commitment to republican government (although there was disagreement and uncertainty as to what that precisely meant); history (in the sense of convention, legacy and their place in its continuing flow); and political theory.
The chapter on the Rights of Englishmen begins with the Framers understandings of freedom, liberty, and property-as inherited through English common law, refined by Blackstone, and developed independently in the New World. Blackstone considered property a third "absolute right," following life and liberty. Of course, he used the word property in the more narrow sense of dominion (rather than the sense of proper as something proper or particular to an individual person). In any case, McDonald discusses Blackstone's qualifications and exceptions to this absolute right, which allowed for the regulation of property (through sumptuary laws, eminent domain, taxation, and the granting of monopoly privileges). McDonald then relates America's experience in light of the English understandings and tradition. The emphasis on property is particular important because, until the Revolution, Americans' general views about liberty were grounded in the same kinds of historical, philosophical and legal foundations as their views of property.
McDonald's chapter on political theory is particularly enjoyable, as he traces the tensions existing amongst the different theories of rights held by the Framers, as well as some of their respective implications. He discusses the appeals made by Americans to natural law as transcending the general norms of English law. A succinct discussion of John Locke's natural law views, which McDonald insists has been "astonishingly misinterpreted." McDonald then proceeds to an interesting comparison and contrast of the two predominant strands of republicanism in America: puritan and agrarian. He proceeds to analyze the "country party" oppositionists as a third influential group and delves into Montesquieu. Many readers will be struck with the differences McDonald describes between the notion of "separation of powers" and a system of "checks and balances"-since most people today describe them as one in the same.
Also interesting is the political economy chapter. McDonald has written more extensively on this subject elsewhere, and it is also the subject of much attention in his stellar biography of Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, the latter part of the chapter is devoted to Hamilton's sophisticated ideas about commerce and finance. The earlier part of the chapter discusses the influence of the French physiocrats, Adam Smith and other early political economists, and continues with an overview of England's experience with public debt.
One chapter is devoted to principles and interests-both those that motivated Framers and (relatedly) how the Framers understood the role and effects of those concepts. Here one finds an interesting discussion of Madison's understanding of factions-made famous in Federalist No. 10. McDonald traces the intellectual roots of this idea, discussing the views of Hume on factions and contrasting them with the Bolingbrokean understandings of republicanism. "[I]t is meaningless to say the Framers intended this or that the Framers intended that," notes McDonald, "their positions were diverse and, in many particulars, incompatible." His survey certainly affirms this understanding (which is also adequately covered in Jack Rakove's "Original Meanings").
A succinct chapter describing the Constitutional Convention follows, in which McDonald catalogues how different groups at the Convention employed the arguments of different political theorists in order to advance their respective viewpoints as to how the federal government was to be constituted, what powers were to be entrusted to it, and to which respective branch they would be entrusted. Much to my delight, McDonald contrasts the understanding of the separation of powers as embodied in the Constitutional document with pre-existing understandings of the separation of powers and the duties commonly thought proper to the respective branches.
Finally, the concluding chapter discusses the powers given to the federal government in the Constitution, and how they operate.
All in all, this is an excellent volume that anyone appreciating political theory, American history and our nation's Constitution should enjoy.
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2004
~Novus Ordo Seclorum~ by conservative historian Forrest McDonald is an astute and poignant political history of the fledgling American republic. The framers of the Constitution sought introduce a new concept into the political discourse, namely federalism. They, of course, were all nationalist in the sense that they hoped to strengthen and stabilize a general government. The 1787 Convention hardly started from scratch and was built on the polity existing under the Articles of Confederation. McDonald perceptively captures efforts to balance out the powers amongst the republican institutions through corporate liberty. Each institution jealously guarded their prerogatives as Madison and Jefferson was essentially the prop for the federal regime created in 1787.

The first introductory chapter boldly proclaims that framers had a problem following their independence: that problem succinctly stated was the nature and form of their republic was to take. The framers were unanimous in the belief that the proper end of government was protecting life, liberty, and property. Prior to 1787, they had yet to resolve the scope and role to be played by the general government and it was agreed that that government under the Confederation was scarcely functioning effectively as it was too weak. The second chapter entitled The Rights of the Englishman brilliantly gives a history of the Anglo-American common law tradition that was so cherished by the colonials. It was their go to fortify, uphold and secure the cherished Rights of the Englishman for citizens of the American polity. The third chapter entitled Systems of Political Theory is an exploration of political debates common amongst the framers. They were well schooled in the classics from Cicero to Lycurgus. Likewise, they were familiar with Montesquieu, but opted for prudence and temperance in their statecraft. They eschewed the Jacobin radicalism being fomented across the Atlantic in France by Rousseau and Robespierre. The fourth chapter entitled Systems of Political Economy deals with explorations into political economy. The body of thought delineated as Political economy is simply those "ideas about the policies governments should or should not pursue regarding property relations to promote the general welfare." The bulk of this chapter deals with the influence of Adam Smith on the colonials and the cunning Hamiltonian economic proposals like protective tariffs, bounties for manufacturers and the Bank of the United States. McDonald captures the political struggles that ensued in Washington's cabinet as Randolph and Jefferson fought Hamilton tooth and nail to thwart his machinations. The remaining three chapters essentially chronicle the political developments, debates and theorizing during the Confederation and especially during those pivotal moments in 1787 when the Constitution was being framed.

The breadth and scope of this book is amazing. McDonald gives a great deal of insight on the framing of the American Republic. He does so with a remarkable deal of conservative sobriety and is not afraid to convey his admiration for the American experiment in republican self-government. McDonald gives enormous insight into the debates on jurisprudence, history, political philosophy, and political economy that took place in the pivotal years during and after the 1787 Convention.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2005
I bought this book based on the favorable reviews below and I was not disappointed. Specifically, I was interested in understanding the original intent(s) of the authors of the US Constitution in hopes of getting a historical context in which to locate contemporary debate regarding methods for interpreting the Constitution. This book gave me much, much more, and in engrossing and elegant prose to boot.

McDonald is erudite and his knowledge has both breadth and depth. As reviewer Nisala A. Rodrigo pointed out, reading McDonald requires some work due to the level of sophistication he uses to explore the 18th century intellectual context. However, I found this text to be a useful and not overwhelming introduction to constitutional history. This is the first book I've read on the origins of the Constitution and I felt I comprehended the bulk of what McDonald was discussing. As Rodrigo suggested, the chapter on the actual making of the Constitution was a bit tedious. However, McDonald was tremendously helpful in providing a sense of the mental horizons and preoccupations of the founding fathers. For instance, I came away with the impression that the founding fathers did not have strong opinions about how original intent should be factored into future decisions involving the interpretation of the Constitution. The founding fathers were focused on substantive issues and the nitty-gritty compromises necessary to get the document ratified rather than worried by questions of hermeneutical methodologies. In fact, I believe McDonald suggests that a question regarding the appropriate role that original intent plays in judicial decisions would not have even been available to the founding fathers given that such issues did not exist at the time of ratification. This insight really helped me to see a bit of irony in contemporary debate regarding original intent - namely that questions of 'original intent' may not have been among the original intentions of the founding fathers.

On a broader scope, I found the first four chapters (pp. 1-142) the most interesting. McDonald sketches the development of political, economic and legal thought in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and America. Although he uses some technical jargon he is careful to provide clear definitions so that non-specialists can understand his scholarship. His explanation of the views of Hume, Smith, Steuart and Mandeville regarding laissez faire and the usefulness of self-interest for achieving the public good are simply brilliant. McDonald's elucidation of the political theories of Locke, Montesquieu, Bolingbroke and Harrington, the effects that these theories had on the Constiutional milieu, and the pervasive suspicion of financial institutions and instruments helps to identify the tensions between creditors and debtors, between speculators in land and in securities, between agrarians and bankers, and, in England, between Crown and country. And understanding the competing interests brings into sharp relief the 18th century Constitutional context by defining what was at stake for whom.

In short, a terrific read. Do not be intimidated by McDonald's scholarship - it is manageable and even engaging.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This book is actually the third of a sort of trilogy, begun with "We the People..." in 1958. It should be no surprise that Mc Donald thinks little of Charles Beard. In his earlier work (mentioned above) he did a great deal to discredit Beard's thesis that the founders created the Constitution in order to increase the values of the gov't securities that they held. He followed this in 1965 with "E Pluribus Unum", a work about the political wheeling and dealing that was behind the creation of, and opposition to, the Constitution. He turned his attention to the ideas that were important to the framers in "Novus Ordo Seclorum" in order to finish his career-spanning look at the basis of our government. I my view, the best thing about this book is the way that it is systematically put together. McDonald states the problem clearly early on, and then proceeds to analyze it step-by-step. His placing of the framing of the Constitution in its broader English context is outstanding, as is his discussion of the political and economic theory that the founders had available. But McDonald also makes it abundantly clear that the framers were no ivory tower theoreticians. They were pragmatic, hardnosed political realists who had a good grounding in the best available theory of their day. That combination of theoretical grounding and practical experience has always seemed to me to be the reason that the Constitution was so well crafted and enduring, and McDonald brings that out quite clearly. On another note, McDonald was characterized above as a "conservative historian". It is true that he has supported conservative causes and taken conservative stances throughout his career, but that seems to be beside the point here. McDonald was writing in an attempt to gain understanding about the framing of the Constitution, not to influence current political debate. To often today we look to the founders to resolve our current controversies. As a result people on both sides of the political spectrum have politicized our history in a way that I think leads to an impoverishment of understanding. I admire McDonald for trying to keep the scholarly ideal of detatchment in view, and doing the best he could to live up to it.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2005
Novus Ordo Seclorum was the book I used to teach the Constitution to international students for a US History course. I was amazed by McDonald's intense research and his comprehensive treatment on the topic. Actually he only spends the second half the book dealing with the Constitution and the Philadelphia Convention. In the first four chapters he describes the long tradition of the English constitution, as well as the prevailing ideals in republicanism and the English Opposition which had an impact later in Philadelphia. I especially liked how McDonald debunked some American myths, such as the belief that James Madison was the "father" of the US Constitution, or that Alexander Hamilton was a champion of the free market and laissez-faire economics.

IMHO, the most interesting part of the book was Chapter 7 on the Convention itself. The reader may be astonished to find that there wasn't really a dominant voice or movement which created the Constitution that Americans have revered for 200 years. Throughout the Convention there were competing voices and interests, many long speeches and appeals which ultimately produced nothing, and a helluva lot of compromise. If you think just reading this chapter is tedious, you can only imagine the actual proceedings. James Madison wasn't kidding when he said that the document was "the work of many heads and many hands."

It is interesting to note that even though McDonald spends half the book describing the British theories which came to America and influenced the Framers, he acknowledges that the final outcome of the Constitution and its structure had less to do with these theories than "common sense" and the Framers' prevailing interests (p. 262). One could applaud McDonald for being thorough; however this revelation somewhat diminishes the relevance of the material in the first half of the book.

As a lecturer, I found this book to be a wonderful resource, and it definitely increased my own insight into the theories behind the document. However, the content was a bit too advanced for my undergraduate students, so I just made the last 4 chapters mandatory reading. The book would probably be best suited for an upper-division or graduate-level course.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitutuion written by Forrest McDonald is a look at the time and mindset of the Framers of the Constitutuon of the United States. Novus Ordo Seclorum is translated as "A new order of the ages (is created);" and is the the moto on the great seal of the United States and is found on the backside of the one-dollar bill.
I must say this, if you plan on reading about the orgins of the Constitution of the United States, this is a must book to read. I would not make this book my first attempt into this subject though. You need a background of information to really get the benefit of this writing. A look at the "Federalist Papers, Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debates, and read some of Bernard Bailyn writings along with some knowledge of the principles involved in the framing itself, ie. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton are just a few.
This being said and a basis of knowledge at hand, reading and understanding the work that was involved in forming a working, viable government that was appropriately balance and checked and refined, lest it become an engine of tyranny; was the task at hand. Principles and interest played an improtant part as we read in the book making the job that much more difficult, but not unattainable. As both a good knowledge was needed of political science and economics otherwise you have no driving force behind your engine of government making it moot.
Dual-sovereignty is another good point raised (States Rights) in this book and the eventual resolution. What I found interesting is that the author is not a big fan of Charles A. Beard's "Economic Interpretation of the Constitution" and he is not alone in that feeling. I found this book to employ the most modern techniques of analyis and uses caution to bear on concepts and information, to bring it in context to this eighteenth-century subject. The Founders left an enormous quanity and variety of written materials, informing us from many points of view what they did, what they read, what they believed, and what they thought. It is up to us to understand this and make imformed decisions.
After reading this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the longer-term necessity as to why the Constitution of the United States was framed as it was.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2001
McDonald does a great job here unwinding the ideas and institutions developed by the founding generation to produce our system of dual sovereignty. He retains a reverence for what our founders accomplished, and constrains himself to an explanation of what happened to bring into operation our "New Order" which now looks quite old.
McDonald is critical of the Charles Beard brand of economic reductionism, and has no patience for the relentless deconstruction of the constitutionalist era by modern historians who insist on showing us that they, rather than these founders, are actually superior moral beings with better insights, as well as more slavish devotion to the current strains of academic obsessions.
This should be on the list of the 10 best books to understand the American system of government.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 1999
McDonald's books are absolute gems of scholarship and thought. This one stands out in that it fully explores the contentious nature of the debate between the "founding fathers," and shows them as the men they were -- warts and all -- who managed, perhaps in spite of themselves, to do something great. McDonald shows why a "bill of rights," might be considered unconsitutional, if one is consistent in applying natural law as a foundation to the structure of the constitution. McDonald also provides important currents of thought to provoke inquiry into what the just foundation of income tax could possibly be. This book is a must, for anyone who cares about this country and America's unique place in history.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2006
Novus Ordo Seclorum is a very specific and academic read on the intellectual origins of the Constitution. Forrest McDonald, in what can only be described as a marvelously researched and specifically footnoted text, digs extraordinarily deep as he seeks out the philosophies and the readings of our framers and they sought to construct a more cohesive nation from an obviously failing and loosely assemble group of sovereign states under the Articles of Confederation. His research and range of knowledge is, at times, daunting. This is a work that is not easily read the first time and one that most, if not all, with an interest in this topic, will pull off their shelves through the years as a reference to further readings. A word of caution - this book should only be read by those who have a significant interest in a deep and academic research into this very specific topic. That said, simply wonderful historical research.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2009
Professor McDonald's book from 1985 is an erudite study of the origins of the U.S. Constitution. In a single volume, he weaves together the many intellectual ideas (e.g., common law, natural law, politics, and economics) that influenced the framers of America's national government. One of the key points he makes is that the terminology at the heart of the American experiments in government was still evolving at this point in time; while everyone wanted a "republican" form of government, different people meant different things with that word. Additionally, there were tensions between the basic principles of the founders; in particular, the desire for a republican form of government had lead to abuses of property rights by the state governments during and after the Revolution.

McDonald's book is full of useful insights and I learned a lot from it. It certainly goes a lot deeper than some other books about the Constitutional Convention that limit their scope to the actual sequence of debates and compromises that took place in 1787. (I'm thinking in particular of Carol Berkin's "A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution".) Readers who enjoy this type of intellectual history should also check out books by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood.

However, McDonald may have gone overboard with details in some chapters; in particular I felt that the long section (23 pages) on property rights in Chapter 2 was excessive. While information about grazing, wood gathering, hunting, and water rights might be useful in a book about the history of America's legal system aimed at lawyers, I did not feel that any of this was relevant to the origins of the Constitution. Chapter 2 is certainly the weakest chapter of the book and probably discourages many readers from reading the rest of it. And that's a shame, because the rest of the book is better and well worth reading.

McDonald provides two appendices: a list of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and the text of the Constitution itself (but unfortunately without the Bill of Rights). An additional appendix listing the major writers whose ideas influenced the Constitution would also have been helpful.
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