If it is true that the Constitution of the United States is to be construed by its intent rather than by mysterious and highly malleable forces of “evolution,” then recovery of the intellectual context out of which it arose is of the highest priority. However, the discovery of intent is primarily a question of historical understanding rather than a matter of the sort of legal sophistries used by 19th-century nationalists who rationalized what was established as a Federal republic into a consolidated commercial democracy. Nor is intent a matter of the speculative inquiries into various abstract symbols such as “democracy,” “equality,” “liberty,” engaged in by all 20th-century liberals and most 20th-century conservatives.

For these reasons, the vigorous, convention-busting work of Forrest McDonald, a historian steeped as a historian should be—in the primary documents of the Founding era—is a contribution to constitutional government that can not easily be overestimated. Nothing finer, perhaps, has been written in brief and lucid compass than McDonald’s four chapters on the intellectual context of the Founders, both as to the implicit and often unelaborated assumptions which all held in common and as to the points of difference among them.

“The Rights of Englishmen” sets forth the legal heritage of the American colonists with a specificity that corrects innumerable liberal and libertarian misreadings. “Systems of Political Theory” illuminates the American fix on the European and English heritage of political thought, reducing some of the usually emphasized thinkers to their proper lesser role and highlighting others that were important but have been less noticed. “Systems of Political Economy” does the same for economics, which was an emerging category of systematic thought just at the time of the Founding. “The Lessons of Experience, 1776-1787” reviews what had been learned from the Revolution and the making of the state constitutions. All this is expounded with a deep though uncluttered and practical learning that is reminiscent of the Founding generation itself. The chapters which discuss the personnel and proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention, ground which McDonald has covered extensively elsewhere, are less successful, though they do serve the purpose of making a connection between the Convention and the ideas described in earlier chapters.

There is one quite serious lack in the work. There ought to have been a chapter dealing with the debates of the state conventions which ratified the Constitution. For the Constitution, as it came from Philadelphia, was nothing more than a draft, a committee report. It gathered its validity entirely, and therefore in the final analysis its intent, from its adoption by the people of the states. That ratification embodied a significant further elucidation and amendment of the terms by which it was to be understood. But McDonald is a conservative of the Federalist persuasion whose hero is Alexander Hamilton. From that standpoint, as from the standpoint of 19th-century nationalists and 20th-century liberals, it is unseemly to dwell upon the fact that it was ratification by the states and not drafting by the Convention which gave the Constitution its validity.

Therefore, investigation of the intent of the Constitution conventionally concentrates on the discussions in Philadelphia. To pursue the meaning of the Constitution further would throw us all the way back to that ancient, once supreme but long discredited idea of states’ rights.

McDonald is our best historian of the Founding era. No one has sounded that era more deeply and fruitfully, and it is a kind of counsel of perfection to ask for more. Yet, if he could be persuaded to study the polemics of the 19th century, between the states’ rights school of Calhoun, Stephens, John Taylor, Dabney, Bledsoe, and numerous others, and the consolidators—such as Story, Curtis, Bancroft, and Sumner—then he would gain insight into how the very context of the Founding was subtly warped by the latter in ways that have affected the historical vision of all later commentators, including, perhaps, even McDonald himself.


[Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, by Forrest McDonald; Lawrence: University Press of Ivansas]