Constitutional originalism and its discontents

I finally got around to starting Jack N. Rakove’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.” I’m only about 50 pages in but I have an inclination to share a few parts from time to time. In the first chapter, The Perils of Originalism, Rakove goes to great lengths detailing the difficulty in satisfying an ‘originalist’ intent by it’s own terms. In the second chapter, The Road to Philadelphia, the author describes the pre-Convention situation and atmosphere that led to the historic meeting of Founders in May 1787. Right now, though, I’m throughly enjoying the third chapter, The Madisonian Moment.

Rakove rightly devotes an ample amount of book space for Madison, whose importance comes not only from his prescient preparation for the Convention but also his analytical insight into the acute problems of the various state forms of republicanism and their deleterious effects – on their own citizens as well as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  In particular he marries the concept of The Machiavellian Moment, first presented by J.G.A. Pocock in his study of the same name, with Madison’s approach to solving the vices of the American political system. In this regard, the Machiavellian Moment carries this meaning:

…It was “the moment in conceptualized time in which the republic was seen as confronting its own temporal finitude, as attempting to remain morally and politically stable in a stream of irrational events conceived as eventually destructive of all systems of secular stability.”

From this, we can perhaps uniquely view Madison’s address to his colleagues in Philadelphia in June of 1787:

In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we shd. not lose sight of the changes which ages produce.

For my admittedly sub-amateur level of understanding Constitutional theory, that is a fascinating quote worth digesting. I look forward to doing so, but I’m also left with idly chewing on this quote as well:

For the argument that later interpretations of the Constitution should seek either to conform to or restore its original meaning is a much diluted yet still recognizable version of the Machiavellian notion of riddurre ai principii.

The Machiavellian concept of riddurre ai principii, “the belief that the preservation of the republic requires a periodic return to its founding principles and conditions.”

Much to ponder upon for this midwestern boy…




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