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

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From abortion to same-sex marriage, today's most urgent political debates will hinge on this two-part question: What did the United States Constitution originally mean and who now understands its meaning best? Rakove chronicles the Constitution from inception to ratification and, in doing so, traces its complex weave of ideology and interest, showing how this document has meant different things at different times to different groups of Americans.


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About the author

Jack N. Rakove is the author of six books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize. Rakove is the editor of seven other books, including The Unfinished Election of 2000.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Vintage
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Published on
Apr 21, 2010
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Pages
464
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ISBN
9780307434517
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / Revolutionary Period (1775-1800)
Political Science / Constitutions
Political Science / Political Ideologies / Democracy
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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James Madison presented his most celebrated and studied political ideas in his contributions to The Federalist, the essays that he, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote in 1787–1788 to secure ratification of the U.S. Constitution. As Jack N. Rakove shows in A Politician Thinking, however, those essays do not illustrate the full complexity and vigor of Madison’s thinking. In this book, Rakove pushes beyond what Madison thought to examine how he thought, showing that this founder’s political genius lay less in the content of his published writings than in the ways he turned his creative mind to solving real political problems.

Rakove begins his analysis by examining how Madison drew upon his experiences as a member of the Continental Congress and as a Virginia legislator to develop his key ideas. Madison sought to derive lessons of history from his reading and his own experience, but he also thought about politics in terms of what we now recognize as game theory. After discussing Madison’s approach to the challenge of constitutional change, Rakove emphasizes his strikingly modern understanding of legislative deliberation, which he treated as the defining problem of republican government. Rakove also addresses Madison’s deliberation about ways to protect the rights of individuals and political minorities from the rule of “factious majorities.” The book closes by tracing how Madison developed strategies for maintaining long-term constitutional stability and adjusting to the new realities of governance under the Constitution.

Engaging and accessible, A Politician Thinking offers new insight concerning a key constitutional thinker and the foundations of the American constitutional system. Having a more thorough understanding of how Madison solved the problems presented in the formation of that system, we better grasp a unique moment of political innovation.
In America’s Constitution, one of this era’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, Akhil Reed Amar, gives the first comprehensive account of one of the world’s great political texts. Incisive, entertaining, and occasionally controversial, this “biography” of America’s framing document explains not only what the Constitution says but also why the Constitution says it.

We all know this much: the Constitution is neither immutable nor perfect. Amar shows us how the story of this one relatively compact document reflects the story of America more generally. (For example, much of the Constitution, including the glorious-sounding “We the People,” was lifted from existing American legal texts, including early state constitutions.) In short, the Constitution was as much a product of its environment as it was a product of its individual creators’ inspired genius.

Despite the Constitution’s flaws, its role in guiding our republic has been nothing short of amazing. Skillfully placing the document in the context of late-eighteenth-century American politics, America’s Constitution explains, for instance, whether there is anything in the Constitution that is unamendable; the reason America adopted an electoral college; why a president must be at least thirty-five years old; and why–for now, at least–only those citizens who were born under the American flag can become president.

From his unique perspective, Amar also gives us unconventional wisdom about the Constitution and its significance throughout the nation’s history. For one thing, we see that the Constitution has been far more democratic than is conventionally understood. Even though the document was drafted by white landholders, a remarkably large number of citizens (by the standards of 1787) were allowed to vote up or down on it, and the document’s later amendments eventually extended the vote to virtually all Americans.

We also learn that the Founders’ Constitution was far more slavocratic than many would acknowledge: the “three fifths” clause gave the South extra political clout for every slave it owned or acquired. As a result, slaveholding Virginians held the presidency all but four of the Republic’s first thirty-six years, and proslavery forces eventually came to dominate much of the federal government prior to Lincoln’s election.

Ambitious, even-handed, eminently accessible, and often surprising, America’s Constitution is an indispensable work, bound to become a standard reference for any student of history and all citizens of the United States.
In this major interpretive work Mr. Kammen argues that most attempt to understand America’s history and culture have minimized its complexity, and he demonstrates that, from our beginnings, what has given our culture its distinctive texture, pattern, and thrust is the dynamic interaction of the imported and the indigenous. He shows now, during the years of colonization, especially in the century from 1660 to 1760, many ideas and institutions were transferred virtually unchanged from Britain, while, simultaneously, others were being transformed in the New World environment.
 
As he unravels the tangled origins of our “bittersweet” culture, Mr. Kammen makes us see that unresolved contradictions in the American experience have functioned as the prime characteristic of our national style. Puritanical and hedonistic, idealistic and materialistic, peace-loving and war-mongering, isolationist and interventionist, consensus-minded and conflict-prone—these opposing strands go back to the roots of our history. He pursues them down through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—from the traumas of colonization and settlement through the tensions of the American Revolution—making clear both the relevance of this early experience to ninetieth and twentieth-century realities and the way in which America’ dualisms have endured and accumulated to produced such dilemmas as today’s poverty amidst abundance and legitimized lawlessness.

Far from being a study in social pathology, People of Paradox is a depiction of a complex society and am explanations of its development—a bold interpretation that gives an entirely new perceptive to the American ethos.
James Madison presented his most celebrated and studied political ideas in his contributions to The Federalist, the essays that he, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote in 1787–1788 to secure ratification of the U.S. Constitution. As Jack N. Rakove shows in A Politician Thinking, however, those essays do not illustrate the full complexity and vigor of Madison’s thinking. In this book, Rakove pushes beyond what Madison thought to examine how he thought, showing that this founder’s political genius lay less in the content of his published writings than in the ways he turned his creative mind to solving real political problems.

Rakove begins his analysis by examining how Madison drew upon his experiences as a member of the Continental Congress and as a Virginia legislator to develop his key ideas. Madison sought to derive lessons of history from his reading and his own experience, but he also thought about politics in terms of what we now recognize as game theory. After discussing Madison’s approach to the challenge of constitutional change, Rakove emphasizes his strikingly modern understanding of legislative deliberation, which he treated as the defining problem of republican government. Rakove also addresses Madison’s deliberation about ways to protect the rights of individuals and political minorities from the rule of “factious majorities.” The book closes by tracing how Madison developed strategies for maintaining long-term constitutional stability and adjusting to the new realities of governance under the Constitution.

Engaging and accessible, A Politician Thinking offers new insight concerning a key constitutional thinker and the foundations of the American constitutional system. Having a more thorough understanding of how Madison solved the problems presented in the formation of that system, we better grasp a unique moment of political innovation.
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