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Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
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76 of 82 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 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. There is no question that some features of the consitution are unambiguous, but they are not always things to be proud of, such as the unequivocal recognition of the legitimacy of chattel slavery. Another basic theme is that the real meaning of the constitution emerges from the collision of what is originally thought and written with the actual processes of politics and government. Rakove's careful analysis and exposition makes it clear that any form of rigid interpretation based on efforts to recover precise understandings of original meanings is likely doomed to failure, and at worst, may be a vehicle for self-deception.

I have to respond to some of the prior comments about this book. It is rather unlikely that Rakove or his publisher have minimized the role of religion in the constitutional process. The best book on the political thinking of this period of American life, Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic, assigns a relatively small role for explicitly religous thought in the political theorizing that drove the constitutional movement. No one has spent more time than Wood in analyzing the primary literature, including a large volume of sermons. Second, Rakove's work is not, as one reviewer wrote, an act of interpretive nihilism. Rakove argues against simple textual analysis as the source of the final answer. Implicit in Rakove's analysis is the idea that the constitutional experience, including traditions developed over the last 2 centuries, and not just a small number of documents, are legitimate data for interpretation. As Professor Wood wrote recently, it is the institutions and traditions we've created over the past 2 centuries that really make us a viable democracy.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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.

While this book is (as others have pointed out) aimed more towards scholars than the layman, I highly recommend this book to any serious student of the Constitution. Prior knowledge of the events of the Revolutionary period is a must, and having read Bailyn's "Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" or Wood's "Creation of the American Republic" will be helpful.

While the Originalism issue comes up here, this book will illuminate your understanding of the Framing of the Constitution generally, and it allows the reader to make up his/her own mind about the author's thesis (or really perhaps better here called an admonition) about the Constitution's original meaning.
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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
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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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution written by Jack N. Rakove is a book wonderfully appointed with documentation and source material about the issues that confronted and were in contention that spirited public debate about the Federal Convention of 1787.
I must say this, that this book was an excellent read, but I believe that the intent of the author was that this should not be your first read into how the U. S. Constitution was framed. This book delves into the time of the framers, as classic issues such as representation, rights, federalism were being debated. Federalist and Anti-Federalist issues are both in representation in this book and are treated equally. This book gives some revealing looks into the men who participated in the framing process, such as George Washington, James Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and James Madison.
These men along with others hashed out an originalism, only after debate about concerns with the constitution itself. As the author works through the ongoing process of analyzing questions and finally resolving constitutional issues, we see that this process had to resolve many issues and later a compromise was worked out, as all issues were debated, some were not resolved to a resolute finality... salvery, women's voting rights and other issues were later resolved.
The author makes a major contribution to the understanding of the Constitution even thought many may feel they know about how and why the Constitution was written, true understanding of the "Original Meanings" gives us an accessible path to the political problems embedded within our Constitution. This book is an outstandingly good read and well concieved by a talented and thoughtful historian.
Those seeking the true meaning of the Constitution should NOT overlook this book as it is thoughtful and has careful scholarly analysis.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
With 22 reviews ahead of me I would normally decline to those who have said it all already, and said it very well. But when you crawl through a tome like this, a few words of recognition of the feat are liberating.

I am an interested "student" of the constitution, or rather the men and process of the constitutional convention. I use quotation marks around student as one who is no longer in school, but has read a good number of books on the subject. Professor Rakove is clearly an expert and a brilliant scholar. The fact, anecdote and nuance in this book are the equivalent of three by most any other author. For that I would give it five stars. It is also a very difficult, labored read as almost every other reviewer has already said. For that, you just have to subtract one of those stars!

By all means buy it and read it if the topic is of interest, but do not come to this book uninformed. This is NOT a book that should be your first on the topic. As others have said, this book was probably written for serious historians and legal minds (professional or amateur). There is allusion and nuance that take knowledge to understand and connect. With the humble admission that some of this book went over my head - I still have to admire its momentousness.

And--Lord, Lord, where was Professor Rakove's editor in all of this? Or, maybe she or he would chime in at this point with, "You should have seen his manuscript BEFORE I got my hands on it!" For a far more "readable" treatment look at Professor Akhil Reed Amar's book America's Constitution: A Biography.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
I've recently begun to reread Professor Rakove's work 'Original Meanings' not because I'd forgotten everything he said (although I'd forgotten a lot), but because I love the subject of our infancy so much. If you have to strain a little to read this work, you'll build the necessary literary 'muscles' needed to adaquately study this precious subject. If you're lazy and unwilling, maybe the subject isn't right for you in the first place. I found Professor Rakove's writing well done, and second only to perhaps Bernard Baylin's 'Ideological Origins...'.
We must remember that the subject deals with very serious times (the young nation was practically under emergency conditions during the late Articles), and brand-new political and psycological frontiers as yet unchartered. In other words the subject deals with human beings facing a life and death crisis. What is the most astounding to me is the level of willingness these men actually had to that kind of change. Today, due to our spoiled ways, the Constitution, in my judgement, could never occur.
Surely if these men could endure the stress of birthing a new nation (especially those pangs of ratification), I can invest a little effort to understand their magnificent work. Professor Rakove's work is not that difficult if one really cares about the subject. Objectivity and depth is far more important to me than easy reading. If the subject is this involved, and it is, so will be the story of it. It is our culture that wants everything; that was not the culture of the Convention. Thank God for that.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2004
Format: Paperback
Rakove's work must be applauded. His chapter on Madison as the father of the Constitution is wonderful, and his phrase "The Madisonian Moment" is a clever turn on JGA Pockock's famous book.
However, there are a few flaws. First off, as others have noted, Rakove is not an especially good writer. He sometimes takes a page to say what could have been said in just a few simpler words. Second, his conclusions about "original meanings" are not entirely persuasive. He has a point insofar as he argues that finding the original meaning of the Constitution is a difficult quest, because the Constitution was a document produced by compromises. However, it does not follow from this that any meaning can be imputed to the Constitution. There are some interpretations which are simply inconsistent with any reasonable reading of the time and the Philadelphia convention.
Nonetheless, a worthwhile book, deserving of its Pulitzer, and a must-read for scholars of the Constitution.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
A previous reviewer said it best already: this book is not for the average reader. If the person picking up this volume has a basic understanding of 18th century American thought, an open mind--critical not gullible, an understanding that America was not a unified nation until the Civil War, this very informative, thought provoking book will prove a treasure. You may not agree with the author in everything, but make sure you know enough to know why you disagree.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2012
Format: Paperback
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 immense in scope 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 more 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.

After reading this book, I can say that Jack Rakove has become my favorite American historian.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Rakove's immensely detailed diorama of the climate of ideas and issues during the creation of the Constitution is necessary reading for scholars and those with an interest in American history alike. But, as other reviews have stated, the book ain't no costume romp; rather, it is a collection of the most specific ideas that were affecting the political life of the nation/colonies, written in a tone that manages to be both passionate and dry. Rakove himself is clearly a brilliant man, and the book's complexity is fascinating when it is not simply overwhelming. Those familiar with the Constitution will find so very much to enjoy; each aspect and amendment of the Constitution is dissected, with due time given to its inception, how it was debated, how the leaders and working man alike felt about it, and about all the ramifications of its being included and what would be taken from the American people if excluded. This goes on for a few hundred pages, and can be an overtly challenging read if you don't take your time with it. Those who devote themselves to it, who pause and reflect and digest Rakove's words, will look at American government and place in the world in new and inspiring ways. A must for the patient historian.
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