The Revolutionary Constitution

The Revolutionary Constitution

The Revolutionary Constitution

The Revolutionary Constitution


The framers of the Constitution chose their words carefully when they wrote of a more perfect union--not absolutely perfect, but with room for improvement. Indeed, we no longer operate under the same Constitution as that ratified in 1788, or even the one completed by the Bill of Rights in 1791--because we are no longer the same nation.

In The Revolutionary Constitution, David J. Bodenhamer provides a comprehensive new look at America's basic law, integrating the latest legal scholarship with historical context to highlight how it has evolved over time. The Constitution, he notes, was the product of the first modern revolution, and revolutions are, by definition, moments when the past shifts toward an unfamiliar future, one radically different from what was foreseen only a brief time earlier. In seeking to balance power and liberty, the framers established a structure that would allow future generations to continually readjust the scale. Bodenhamer explores this dynamic through seven major constitutional themes: federalism, balance of powers, property, representation, equality, rights, and security. With each, he takes a historical approach, following their changes over time. For example, the framers wrote multiple protections for property rights into the Constitution in response to actions by state governments after the Revolution. But twentieth-century courts--and Congress--redefined property rights through measures such as zoning and the designation of historical landmarks (diminishing their commercial value) in response to the needs of a modern economy. The framers anticipated just such a future reworking of their own compromises between liberty and power.

With up-to-the-minute legal expertise and a broad grasp of the social and political context, this book is a tour de force of Constitutional history and analysis.


The United States Constitution is a revolutionary document. The text crafted in 1787 and amended within four years by the Bill of Rights is the product of history’s first modern revolution. It embodied a fundamental re-scripting of assumptions about government. In this invented nation, the people were both rulers and ruled, sovereigns and subjects. For the first time, citizens were responsible for creating their government and then deciding—election by election—how they would govern themselves.

Revolutions are by definition moments when the past shifts toward an unfamiliar future, one radically different from what was foreseen only a brief time earlier. But the disjuncture between what was and what will be is less noticeable the further we move from the events that give rise to a new order. Over months and years, what was innovative becomes commonplace. We blur the distinction between old and new even more when we write history. The past always contains hints of what is to come, and, as a result, we often see continuity instead of a break with the past. But antecedents are not the revolution, which comes only when people begin to see their world in a fresh and original way.

The American Revolution was a radical experience that reshaped society as much as it restructured government. It freed ideas of sovereignty, liberty, equality, representation, and power from their traditional moorings and gave them rein to recast how men and women related to one another as citizens within and outside government. The signature phrase of the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—summed up a century-old understanding of the tie between government and citizens, but in its new context led generations of Americans to claim equality as a mandate to redesign social relationships and not just political ones. As its political expression—and constitutions are the highest form of statecraft—the Constitution was the revolutionary answer to the ages-old antagonism in Western culture between power and liberty. James Madison, who shaped the document and our understanding of it more than any other founder, recognized this role when he wrote in 1792, “Every word of the [Constitution] decides a question between power and liberty.” What made the American experience unique, he argued, was its answer:

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