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The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy First Edition Edition

3.3 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674018662
ISBN-10: 0674018664
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Focusing on the electoral crisis of 1801, Yale constitutional scholar Ackerman advances a bold new interpretation of early American history. The election is noted for the electoral tie between two Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson won, of course, but Ackerman's focus is less on the tie than on the sound Republican thrashing of Federalist John Adams. The fracas, he says, revealed a serious flaw in the framework for presidential elections: it couldn't easily accommodate party politics, which the framers had abhorred. The tempestuous jockeying of 1801, the author says, "marks the birth-agony of the plebiscitarian presidency";that is, having soundly defeated the Federalists, a president claimed for the first time that the people had given him a mandate for broad change. In sketching the consequences of Jefferson's ascendance, Ackerman also rereads the history of the Supreme Court, suggesting that scholars have erred in abstracting the famed Marbury v. Madison decision from the larger political context, i.e., Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall used judicial review to try to limit Jefferson's mandate. Ackerman innovatively recasts the histories of parties, constitutional interpretation and presidential politics. This is not an easy read;indeed, it's quite dense at times, and the argument is complex;but the payoff is worth it. Rarely has a study of American history been more timely. (Oct.)
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Review

Just like with his magnificent We the People, Bruce Ackerman has intertwined well researched history with an unparalleled skill as a constitutional theorist. The Failure of the Founding Fathers describes the maneuvering that validated Thomas Jefferson's claim to the presidency that then created a decade-long confrontation between the Jeffersonians in the elected branches of the Federalists in the judiciary. This is constitutional history at its finest.
--Lucas A. Powe, Jr., University of Texas at Austin, and author of The Warren Court and American Politics

Bruce Ackerman has written a provocative account of the impact upon America's political future of the Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalists. Completely levitating himself out of the historiography of party formation, Ackerman in The Failure of the Founding Fathers demonstrates just how powerful the vexed election of 1800 proved to be.
--Joyce Appleby, University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans

Many fine historians have written about the presidential election of 1800. But only Bruce Ackerman has placed all of the events surrounding the election into the context of American constitutional development. With his usual mixture of careful historical exegesis, narrative sweep, and bold interpretive imagination, Ackerman enables us to see a number of aspects of our constitutional history as if for the first time (beginning with the fact that the almost unknown case of Stuart v. Laird, was far more significant that Marbury v. Madison, decided a week earlier). Anyone interested in the development of American constitutionalism--and American political institutions--should be fascinated by this book.
--Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School, author of Wrestling With Diversity

Ackerman innovatively recasts the histories of parties, constitutional interpretation and presidential politics...Rarely has a study of American history been more timely. (Publishers Weekly 2005-08-01)

[Ackerman] goes against the fashion to produce this major reinterpretation of the immediate post-1787 history of America's charter.
--Robert F. Nardini (Library Journal 2005-09-15)

Bruce Ackerman, who teaches at Yale Law School, might be expected to advocate for either the Jeffersonians or their opponents, the Federalists. Instead he dishes blame all around to make the point that the mistakes of 1787 have shaped our politics. He sees American constitutionalism as a work in progress over two centuries. This liberal jurisprudence opposes the originalism of Antonin Scalia and other conservative jurists who insist that the true meanings of a law or decision are simply the literal ones right there in the text if you read them the right (Right?) way. The historical approach favored by Ackerman stresses continual reinterpretation of constitutional articles, legislation, presidential orders, and judicial decisions. Like the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that still inspires its practitioners, it needs a lot of detailed history to back up the argument. And that's what we get in The Failure of the Founding Fathers. Fortunately, Ackerman can tell a story as well as score points against originalists...[This is] thought-provoking history.
--David Waldstreicher (Boston Globe 2006-02-12)

The Failure of the Founding Fathers contains the familiar dynamics of institutional triggers, synthesis of orders, and the nonlegal processes that play an important role in the American constitutional order, but it also offers new surprises, promising to change the way readers think about the date of the founding, MARBURY v. MADISON, and John Marshall...One cannot take leave of this book without noting what a fun read it is, with Ackerman acting as the armchair narrator leading the reader through events. Filled with questions of "who dunnit?" with the machinations of "crafty" and "sensible" politicians, as well as the author's own "detective" work, this book never lets the reader forget the thrills to be found in constitutional history.
--Kathleen S. Sullivan (The Law and Politics Book Review)

Highly ambitious and well-researched...[Its] great value [is its] testimony to the essential fragility of constitutional and democratic development...Ackerman tells his story well and persuasively...The book is a tour de force that draws on an impressive amount of archival research. Yet its real value lies less within Ackerman's absorbing story of this dire political crisis and the political dynamics it precipitated than in his skill and imagination in advancing his theory of constitutional change in the U.S. His arguments are solid and remain refreshingly heretical in a milieu that typically lionises the framers without accepting their limitations and the need for subsequent institutional and constitutional adjustments to accommodate changing political realities.
--John Owens (Times Higher Education Supplement 2006-09-08)

Ackerman has a wonderful ability to draw new insights from conventional understandings of political events by focusing on small, concrete incidents.
--Barbara Oberg (American Journal of Legal History)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (October 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674018664
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674018662
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,710,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Warner Todd Huston on November 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I very much enjoyed "The Failure of the Founding Fathers" by Bruce Ackerman. His research into the contemporary controversies and arguments made during the contentious 1800 election was refreshing. Too many writers rely on later day, secondary sources which leaves unsaid too much of what they then said about their own conflagrations and machinations. Nuance is lost using secondary sources, all too often.

Ackerman's discussion of the authorship of the Horatius letter, is a prime example of his harkening back to primary sources. Was the letter written by Marshall? Later researchers say no, but Ackerman puts forth a convincing case that Marshall might have been the author, a case filled with thoughts that secondary sources never seem to have even considered.

I have but one problem with Mr. Ackerman's work. It appears he has let his zeal to be a "controversialist" get the better of him a bit too often. He repeats his mantra of the "Founder's failures" over and over and, while his points are convincing enough that the Constitution had some problematic aspects where it concerns a strict description of procedure which came into stark light during the raucous 1800 election, his constant use of verbiage like "blunders" and "failures" belabors the point.

Ackerman seems all to often to have drawn a bold separation between the "Founders" who created the Constitution and those common everyday politicians who fought the Party battles of the 1800 election. But, my problem arises when one realizes that the "Founders" of 1780s Constitutional creation era and those politicians involved in the 1800 election fight were nearly to a man ONE and the SAME!
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It's hard to imagine an author covering the 1800 election, the Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court decision, and several other topics that this book treats and coming up with something coherent. But Ackerman does just that. I came to this book after reading another book by the same author dealing with the nomination, election, and assassination of James Garfield ("Dark Horse," reviewed by me earlier) and I am impressed by Ackerman's ability to write a book on political history that is almost impossible to put down. He puts in all sorts of information that is essential for a modern reader to follow the happenings of a different era with understanding, while never letting his writing become too tedious.

The Constitution was not written with an eye toward the political party system that soon developed, and the constitutional mechanism for election of the Presidency soon developed obvious flaws as soon as Washington retired. Ackerman does not go much into the 1796 election, which already unmasked problems (leading to a President and Vice-President of opposite parties) but begins with the 1800 election, which almost led to a total breakdown.

The main thrust of the book is that out of this election and the ensuing competition between Federalist ideas of the Constitution (exemplified by John Marshall in the Chief Justiceship) and the ideas of Jefferson and his allies (especially James Madison) came a synthesis which has lasted. And I think that to a large extent he makes his case.

I do want to say that another reviewer's comment that Ackerman overly adulates Jefferson and denigrates Marshall does not appear to me to be the case. He points out errors made by both men, though he says at one point that a selfish action made by Jefferson as President of the Senate probably had consequences that were in the nation's best interest, and that may be what the reviewer had in mind. I think the book is actually rather balanced.
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Format: Hardcover
Here's the problem. Professor Ackerman has some original and thought-provoking ideas on the development of constitutional law by the Marshall Court and American history in the wake of the disputed election of 1800. He correctly points out that the trouble with most legal or historical analysis of this time period is that it passes through the imperfect prism of each writer's point of view, and that there is insufficient attention paid to how the participants viewed events as they occured. It correctly points out how the Constitution of 1787 was markedly and significantly changed in practice by the fallout from the election of 1800 and our own Jeffersonian "regime change." HOWEVER, this reads like a law review article that got out of hand and is filled with extraneous material that does not advance the central points of his thesis. I really enjoyed the book, but it really could have been edited better.
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Professor Bruce Ackerman examines the 'defects' in the Constitution of 1787 in conjunction with Thomas Jefferson's new "Plebiscitary Presidency" of 1800. His light shined back 200+ years from the perspective of the law reflects differently on events than the same light shown from the perspective of history, or political science, or sociology. Aspects thought to be fully illuminated before, are shown to take new or different shape. And, in the case of Professor Ackerman's look, a very interesting shape.

The publishers description does a perfectly adequate job of describing the book's contents and objective; what is left to say as a reader is how remarkably well Ackerman achieves his objectives - even for this reader with no legal background. The functionality of the Supreme Court, Jefferson's tie with Burr, the deliberations of the House of Representatives to select the President in 1800, the Supreme Court's Marbury vs. Madison decision are all re-examined in historical and legal detail.

The read is brisk and unencumbered with jargon. Professor Ackerman uses a lively style incorporating phrases that invite the lay reader: "We can never know what Madison would have said in court if Jefferson hadn't muzzled him." (loc. 2332); "If the Framers had been intellectually conservative folk, they would never have launched their unprecedented experiment in government on a continental scale." (loc. 3275); "It is up to Paterson to decide whether he can dig himself out of the hole he dug for himself in the 1790s. All Marshall can do is offer a shovel" (loc. 1997).

There are periods of occasional 'fog' created by too much original material incorporated into the text. Senator John Randolph's speech (loc. 2577) is an example of a sentence of enlightenment tormented by a page of text.
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