Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Thinking like a Constitution

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Thinking like a Constitution

Article excerpt

I take my title from James Scott's recent book, Seeing Like a State.1 It was not the argument of the book that inspired me, but just the true cleverness of the title itself. Out of sheer envy, I found myself seeking an equivalent title that would cover the sorts of questions that I like to ask. Admittedly, this is an unusual way for historians to proceed. Usually we start with a problem, do some research, start writing, and conjure up a working title only when the manuscript is ready to go. Starting with the title first, and then figuring out what the subject should be, reverses the natural order of things. After all, historians are empiricists, not nominalists, believers in diversity, not esseritialists.

Still, it was a clever title, and it got me thinking that the closest analogue for my own work would be "Thinking Like a Constitution." That sounded catchy enough, but what did, or rather, could it mean? When Scott talks about "seeing like a state," he seeks to describe how real human actors, inhabiting arid exploiting the instruments of bureaucratic and coercive power, view their societies and the peoples who inhabit them. The concept of the State may be an abstraction, but real states consist of real people, wielding real power, with real consequences for real societies. A constitution, by contrast, is only a document. It is the product of thought, of course, but it cannot think itself. Thinking about a constitution is easy enough-we do it all the time. But learning to think like, one might well be a fool's errand.

There was, however, one obvious place to begin, with James Madison. Although I hope I am less closely associated with the fourth president than, say, Arthur Link was identified with another Princetonian, making sense of Madison's politics and political ideas has been central to my scholarship since I started out in the early 1970s. More to the point, I had recently found myself thinking not only about the content of Madison's thought, which is challenging enough in its own right, but also about the qualities of his mind, the intellectual properties and attributes that enabled him to become the leading constitutionalist of his age, on either side of the Atlantic. The challenge, in other words, was not only to understand the what and the why of Madisoniari theory, but also the how of his thinking.

For starters, then, "thinking like a constitution" might mean asking: How does an innovative constitutional theorist really think? Here one aspect of Madison's preparations for the Federal Convention seemed especially promising: his analysis in the well-known memorandum on "the vices of the political system of the U. States" of the reasons why any system of federalism based on the voluntary compliance of the states with national measures appeared doomed to failure. Making sense of Madison's approach to this key problem offered a new insight into the qualities of his mind-or one could say, in honor of an important essay by a past SHEAR president, Daniel Howe, his faculties.2 But before discussing that problem, a few solipsistic things about the author of the current essay are in order.

I am a very traditional historian. Not to be morbid, but I have often said that my epitaph could read, "He tried to make the old history respectable (again)." I try to ask new questions, but about very old topics-arguably the oldest topics in American history. The questions that interested George Bancroft still intrigue me. Not that I am unreceptive or unappreciative of many "new histories"; it's simply that I am one of those odd birds who thinks that high politics and decision-making really matter, and who is intrigued by the difficulty of explaining why exceptional individuals make a difference in history, including those who fall under the label of "the founders" of the American republic or "the framers" of its Constitution. Nor was I one who thought that historians had much to gain from becoming converts to the methodologies of other disciplines, and especially from the turn to theory. …

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