Original Intentions

M. E. Bradford calls himself a rhetorician, and he uses his skills as an individual trained to parse the logic of language to rediscover what it was the original Framers committed to paper when drafting the federal Constitution. Bradford is a man with a mission: to oppose unequivocally the contemporary orthodoxy—spawned by such latter-day constitutional interpreters as Justice William J. Brennan—that conflates the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address with the Constitution to read into the latter principles of so-called natural rights. As a philosophic concept natural law describes an order in the natural world that provides norms for human conduct; as legal concepts, natural law and its corollary, natural rights, are, according to Bradford, inoperative because they subscribe to no fixed standards.

One of Bradford’s main points is that although all of the original thirteen states ultimately ratified the Constitution, each understood the document in its own way. Accordingly, although Bradford opens his collection with an essay devoted to the Constitutional Convention—an essay given the subtitle, “The Great Convention as Comic Action”—the preponderance of his volume focusses on state ratifying conventions. Three representative conventions are explored in detail, those of Massachusetts (“A Dike to Fence Out the Flood”), South Carolina (“Preserving the Birthright”), and North Carolina (“A Great Refusal”). What Bradford finds, as these chapters subtitles indicate, is that the Constitution finally carries the weight of many “original intentions.” Consequently, he concludes, the document on which American government is based was not meant to memorialize a master plan of social engineering, but rather to use the power of law to limit the power of government. In order to accommodate the variety inherent in the notion of a country of united states, the Constitution is “a body of law, designed to govern, not the people, but government itself.”