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Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution Paperback – May 27, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

Imagine, for a preposterous moment, that 55 national leaders convened to write a document to guide the country for hundreds of years. It seems unlikely--given that our current contingent of so-called leaders can't agree on how to balance a checkbook--that they could reach consensus on such issues as the allotment of congressional seats. The political and ideological issues that faced the creators of the Constitution were similar in some ways to those at play today. And in some ways they were vastly different ones. Jack Rakove, a history professor at Stanford University, has in this book framed the process that led to the drafting of the constitution in its historical and political context to offer insight into the difficulty of interpreting that most influential of documents. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (May 27, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679781218
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679781219
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #438,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

JACK RAKOVE, the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and a professor of political science at Stanford University, is one the most distinguished historians of the early American republic. He is the author of, among other books, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. He frequently writes op-ed articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers. He has been an expert witness in Indian land claims litigation and has testified in Congress on impeachment.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 83 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 26, 2004
Format: Paperback
Several prior reviewers are correct, this book is not intended for the general reading public. It was aimed primarily at scholars of American history and probably also at law professors. To enjoy this book, it is really necessary to know both the basic narrative history and to already have some grasp of 18th century political theory, particularly as it was discussed in British North America. Familiarity with the works of Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood are really necessary to really grasp the issues discussed in this book. That said, this is a really insightful and well written monograph. Rakove covers the basic problems that the initiators of the constitution hoped to solve, the debates in the Constitutional Convention, the campaign over ratification, the Bill of Rights controversy, over important issues like the nature of Presidential power, and even the beginnings of the controversies over interpretation in the early Republic. His emphasis throughout is on the thinking of the Federalists and their opponents. A number of themes emerge though a basic one can be said to be that of ambiguity. A product of differing motivations, political and ideological compromise, and a highly politically charged process of ratification, it is hardly surprising that it is hard to assign unambiguous 'intentions' to many aspects of the constitution. Even when contemporary supporting literature is consulted, like The Federalist Papers, it is not an infallible guide because it contains similar ambiguities. Indeed, without some ambiguity and liberty of interpretation, it is hard to see how the constitution would have succeeded in remaining a guiding document throughout all the changes of hte last 2 centuries.Read more ›
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Adam R. Zurbriggen on September 12, 2007
Format: Paperback
I just finished reading this book for a class in U.S. Constitutional History and my Professor has aptly noted that this book really attempts to do two things: first, it makes this point about Originalism, demonstrating that any attempt to divine original meaning, intention, or understanding is perilous because of the diverse thought, political motivations, and interests present in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. Second, it attempts to show the difficulties of Constitution-making, and how the framers attempted to reconcile a revolutionary republican ideology with the practical problems of governance.

While the conclusion of the first objective has been criticized and debated by various reviewers (and appropriately so), I believe that this book is extremely valuable in its accomplishment of this second purpose. With dense yet incredibly readable prose, Rakove demonstrates that the Constitution was an attempt to combine republican principles with the practical experiences of the States during the Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation.

Using a few topical discussions such as a discussion of views on Representation, the Presidency, and Rights, Rakove illuminates the thinking embraced by the Framers (such as that of Locke, Montesquieu, and others) and compares and relates such principles with the real experience and concerns of the Framers (such as Madison's view that the States were becoming destructive of property rights under the Confederation). Such descriptions go a long way in describing how and why the Framers crafted the systems of government found in the Constitution and why these systems drew some criticism from both inside and outside the Convention.
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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 25, 1997
Format: Hardcover
Upon finishing Rakove's work, I was reminded of Albert Einstein's remark, "Don't worry about your problems with mathetmatics; I can assure you that mine are far greater." Rakove is a brilliant historian, and his book "Original Meanings" is full of crucial insight which, if widely conveyed, would fundamentally change our constitutional debate. After reading Rakove's book, I can never use the term "Founding Fathers" in the popular sense. These men emerge from Rakove's pages as nervous, uncertain, quarrelsome; far from the mythic figures we have created in high school textbooks. Rakove discusses issues that were highly relevant to the Framers but have been essentially lost to history, and he discusses them well and thoroughly. I studied the Constitution for three years in law school, and Rakove brought a wealth of new material to my eyes.

Unfortunately, Rakove seems to have written this book for my professors, not for me. This is not to say that he does not write well. For his audience, his writing is extraordinary, but his chosen audience is assuredly not a broad one. His diction often left me casting about for my dictionary. I had one professor who would never use a plain Engish phrase when an obscure Latin phrase would do half as well. Rakove isn't in his class, but only because he shuns Latin. Perhaps I am only indicating my own ignorance, but I don't come across the word "abjure" every day, and Rakove included dozens of such speed bumps in his narrative. Rakove's word choice keeps "Original Meanings" out of the realm of remarkable books, but his insight, attention to detail, and willingness to challenge the myths of original intent will force every constitutional scholar to add this text to his or her library.
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