Original Meanings

In ORIGINAL MEANINGS: POLITICS AND IDEAS IN THE MAKING OF THE CONSTITUTION, Jack Rakove delves into the thoughts of the founding fathers without getting embroiled in issues of constitutional interpretation. After a chapter on “The Perils of Originalism,” Rakove describes how James Madison formed the Virginia Plan, the plan which served as the point of departure for the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Rakove then presents two insightful chapters on the debates at Philadelphia and the subsequent nationwide struggle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over ratification. Here he effectively demonstrates how the Federalists solicited approval for the document as a whole while skillfully avoiding the reopening of debate on its parts. The remainder of the book deals with specific topics discussed by the Constitution’s framers, including the presidency, the structure of Congress, slavery, and the Bill of Rights.

Rakove’s book is based on extensive research in printed primary sources. The ongoing debate on the “original understanding” method of interpreting the Constitution is well served by his careful, objective approach. Much of this book, including the chapters on ratification and the Bill of Rights, is stimulating and insightful. Though his arguments are usually clear enough, his style is somewhat dense. All who are interested in the Constitution will benefit from ORIGINAL MEANINGS, but it is best for those already familiar with the legal and historical issues which Rakove discusses.