Book: Original Meanings

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Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

Author: Jack N. Rakove
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Publisher: Vintage Books USA

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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Amazon.com

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.

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