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

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  748 Ratings  ·  42 Reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 464 pages
Published April 21st 2010 by Vintage (first published March 26th 1996)
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Scott Cox
Rakove's Pulitzer Prize winning work on understanding the intent of the original framers of the Constitution is a timely work, especially given recent Supreme Court nomination battles. Perhaps Rakove's views can best be summarized by the following two quotes, the first attributed to Madison, "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated." Who ...more
Feb 20, 2013 Bruce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: us-history, politics
Professor Rakove's work is a must read for anyone interested in the idea of 'original intent'. In his opening chapter "The Perils of Originalism" he raises a couple of questions. Whose intent and understanding are we to look at, the Framers or the Ratifiers? Are we to look at specific individuals, just a few, or the entirety of those Framers and/or Ratifiers? Inasmuch as several of them changed their opinions over the course of their live, at what time in their life are we to look?
The next coupl
Mark Paul
Sep 06, 2010 Mark Paul rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the sources of our institutions and rights
This exhaustively researched and beautifully written account of the politics and ideas behind the making of the U.S. Constitution is a model of history at its very best.

Through close and scrupulously fair attention to the arguments of both those who drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787 and the anti-Federalists who opposed its ratification, Rakove brings to life the political issues and conflicts that shaped the provisions of the Constitution and informed the often conflicting meanin
Oct 24, 2010 Vheissu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The notion that the "original intentions" of the framers should guide subsequent generations of Americans begs the question, "Who were the framers?" Were these "framers" in lock-step agreement about the meaning of the words in the Constitution? Can we really know the intentions of those who, like Madison and Hamilton, tried to conceal their true intentions from the Congress, their adversaries, and the public? Are we to be forever frozen in the late eighteenth century? Robert Jackson, paraphrasin ...more
Igor Faynshteyn
Sep 07, 2013 Igor Faynshteyn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a deeply and meticulously researched book, by one of the leading Constitutional scholars/historians Jack Rakove (as distinct from constitutional law; he is not a lawyer). The scholarship is superb and it is as indispensable for politics and law as it is profound historically.

The book is comprehensive: it covers James Madison and his political philosophy writings preceding and during the making of the Constitution; the period preceding and leading to the Constitutional Convention in 1787,
An intensive, Pulitzer Prize winning look at how our constitution and Bill of Rights came to be - who was for it and who was ag'in it and why. The reasons are still areas of conflict 240 years later. I want to get a hard copy of this book and really study it. A lot to hold in my mind without taking notes.
Apr 04, 2013 Erin rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It is infuriating to me that historians hide their brilliant interpretations of a concept so pertinent to today's political discussion behind incoherent writing styles. This book is at times hopelessly dense, frustrating the everyday interest in early American history. I assume that the Pulitzer is for the message and not the style, but boy do I wish that this guy had a more involved editor and a publisher that cared about typeface and readability. Everything about this book is just dense, and l ...more
Jul 07, 2008 Debbie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For those who like to argue with people who claim to know what the founding fathers were thinking (and that we should adhere strictly to their plan). Rakove gives the best short-ish history of the writing of the US constitution, pointing out along the way that the whole thing was basically a compromise to keep as many interests happy as possible. Take that, Scalia/Thomas; James Madison was smarter than the both of you combined.
Paul Frandano
The best thing I've read on the mind and political context of the Founders at the various founding moments...the deliberation and intention of the 1787 Framers, the deliberations and intentions of the state ratification conventions c. 1787-1789, and the early debates over the institutionalization of the constitutional clauses and where the sources of political danger lurked. Jack Rakove is another of Bernard Bailyn's crowded stable of brilliant students who with Bailyn have moved on to reshape t ...more
Jan 09, 2009 Jeff rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Rakove's book is a silly attack on the Originalist theory of constitutional interpretation. Rakove's argument basically boils down to "Lawyers can't do history! History is for Historians! Whaa! Whaa! Whaa!"
Robert Cohen
This was a solid, thought-provoking read of the crafting of the U.S. Constitution. I had never considered interpreting the entire document as a whole of intricate parts, I guess I presumed to take each one as a unique and standalone feature. Admittedly, I found it a little dry and the spirit and wording read like a grad school theoretical text book. At any rate, I do recommend for a reader interested in historical facts and a greater understanding of the politics, compromise, and even (losing si ...more
Oct 29, 2011 Cheryl rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pulitzer-prize
Original Meanings gives some new insights into this current notion of the original meanings of the Founding Fathers in crafting the U.S. Constitution. Not an easy read--fairly scholarly. This book won the Pulitzer Prize. Some extremely interesting insights and quotes as to what many of the Founding Fathers felt about whether the Constitution should be looked at from their point of view or whether it really is a "living document." Also, a factor that I had never heard discussed is what the origin ...more
Wills Hill
Feb 20, 2013 Wills Hill marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Original meanings: politics and ideas in the making of the Constitution

Jack N. Rakove
22 Reviews
A.A. Knopf, 1996 - 439 pages
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
Drew Danko
This is a very scholarly book which I found difficult to read and retain. If you are not writing a term paper or a thesis then you better be into constitutional history big time. I was looking for a book that would help me better understand the intentions of the framers when they wrote some of the more currently controversial amendments such as the right to bear arms,etc. This book delves into the back story of the writing and ratification of the constitution. It is well written and does provide ...more
Jul 07, 2011 Brandon rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: united-states
Very good book for research; however, reading this book both reflects onto me my interests and also my growth as a truth-seeker. To truly understand the words of the Constitution requires the study, in my opinion, of the texts that made up the era including the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and the other political philosophers of the Enlightenment era. Additionally, the Federalist Papers must be taken into account too. The author does a very excellent job in putting together the information ...more
Dan Gorman
Great ideas. Very dense. Very, very dense. The focus on great men is now a bit dated, too - the book suffers for not looking at the role ordinary people (including women and non-whites) played in ratifying and debating the Constitution. Rakove's takedown of neoconservative originalism is sheer brilliance, however.
Gerry Connolly
Jul 21, 2014 Gerry Connolly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jack Rakove's scholarly book Original Meanings lays out the debates and intentions of the Constitution. Also makes plain the pseudo-intellectual content of Scalia and originalism. Absurd and dangerous judicial approach.
Feb 26, 2015 Miriam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent review of the various perspectives on the Constitution, both before and after ratification, and the resulting impact on the contest between originalism and living Constitution.
Jun 30, 2016 Dylan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I've never before read a history Pulitzer Prize winner that I didn't like but wow, this was not for me. It was repetitive and dull while not being very revelatory.
Patricia Smith
Mar 28, 2015 Patricia Smith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book should be a must read for everyone!
Cath Holden
Dec 27, 2015 Cath Holden rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love books like this!
Jun 13, 2010 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A scholarly work about the creation of the constitution, including some discussion about the current debate of constitutional interpretation by examining original intent of the founders. Or should it be the ratifiers? Or was the intent that the meaning would evolve through judicial interpretation. See p. 18 Argument re: ignoring the charge to amend the Articles: p. 101-109,134. Science of Politics p 154-160. States in a state of nature 1063-5. "Coda" nice discussion of originalist arguments p 36 ...more
Sean Chick
I wish I could rate this higher, for some passages are good and Rakove does a fine job of showing the murky, contested and archaic aspects of the Constitution's original meaning. But where he succeeds at explaining some of the ideas, his language seems to veer off into the vague. Most of all he fails to discuss the politics with the same energy, insight, and detail. So there you have it a flawed and mostly unoriginal book that is obsessed with Madison.
Jeff C
Feb 23, 2016 Jeff C rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not my cup of tea
Marné Yates
Feb 25, 2012 Marné Yates rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 2012
Okay, the only reason I didn't like this book was because I hardly understood it. Even my professor for my senior seminar said that we were going to have a book-burning party when we were finished...and I have NEVER wanted to burn a book. Until now. Jack N. Rakove is an absolute GENIOUS...who should never be allowed to write books. Even though it won the Pulitzer. Haha.
Mar 11, 2011 Henry rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Warning: This book is not for the layperson. Or maybe I'm just a weak reader. The author may have some good ideas and the history might be important to learn, but I couldn't learn anything from this book due to its purely academic and obfuscating language and writing style. All of its secrets are locked behind the gates of poor delivery.
Terry Earley
Oct 04, 2011 Terry Earley rated it it was ok
Recommended by Paul Recanzone. Thanks Paul.

Though very dense in many chapters, and I did skip a lot of esoteric legal and political stuff, this was instructive. I am glad I read it. It describes the reasons why we have a tradition of looking at the constitution for direction on difficult legal issues.
Jun 08, 2012 Dan rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A tough book to read but well worth the time and effort. The chapters on the presidency and rights are well worth it alone. I'd recommend reading books on the constitutional conventions first to give yourself a good grounding in the arguments of the time before reading this book.
Dave Peticolas
Oct 08, 2014 Dave Peticolas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

What does the notion of the Constitution's 'Original Meaning' really mean? Rakove's books is a methodical, but still readable, exploration of that subject through historical analysis. Rakove shows what a tricky concept 'original meaning' actually amounts to.

Jun 24, 2016 Ken rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm an American Revolution fan and have read Rakove before. While I appreciated the quality of the book, I found it quite dense. Understandable why it won the Pulitzer, but suggest it's for the dedicated reader only.
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Jack Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science and (by courtesy) law at Stanford, where he has taught since 1980. His principal areas of research include the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political practice and theory of James Madison, and the role of historical knowledge in constitutional litigation. ...more
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“How could those who wrote the Constitution possibly understand its meaning better than those who had the experience of observing and participating in its operation? It is one thing to rail against the evils of politically unaccountable judges enlarging constitutional rights beyond the ideas and purposes of their adopters; another to explain why morally sustainable claims of equality be held captive to the extraordinary obstacles of Article V or subject to the partial and incomplete understandings of 1789 or 1868.” 1 likes
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