In the twenty-first century, what it means to interpret the United States Constitution has undergone a fundamental change from the scholarship that older members of the profession, such as myself, grew up with in the 1960s and 1970s. In that era, historians dedicated to social science history and “history from the bottom up” examined the economic status and regional allegiances of delegates to the Constitutional and state ratifying conventions. Forrest McDonald1 and Jackson Turner Main2 disputed whether the Constitution broadly represented the people or was primarily the work of a cosmopolitan elite that successfully imposed its nationalist vision on a locally minded populace. John P. Roche,3 along with Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins,4 later seconded by Jack Rakove,5 defined this elite primarily by its organizational ability and energy, by its [End Page 143] commitment to the Revolution at the national level in Congress and the army, rather than by wealth. Max Edling has recently argued, very powerfully, that the Federalists accommodated themselves to anti-statist tendencies in the new nation and yet created a strong republic that could defend itself. Survival in a world of hostile nations, rather than elite dominance, was the main purpose of the Constitution.6
For Edling and his predecessors, the Constitution was thus a fulfillment of the Revolution rather than the counterrevolution Merrill Jensen, following in the footsteps of Charles Beard, had claimed.7 Cecilia M. Kenyon, supported later by Barry Shain,8 argued that the fear of power removed from the local level, rather than a commitment to democracy or personal liberty, was the principal feature of the Anti-Federalist opposition.
Since 2000, books on the Constitution have proliferated. Unfortunately, many of them are presentist efforts by people who know little about the early American republic to prove that the Founding Fathers would have supported or opposed gun control, or condemned or approved of a particular Supreme Court or president, etc., blissfully ignorant that George Washington disposed of that whole line of inquiry as early as 1787:
I think the people (for it is with them to judge) can, as they will have the advantage of experience on their side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments which are necessary as ourselves. I do not think we are more inspired, have more wisdom, or possess more virtue than those who will come after us.9 [End Page 144]
There are of course, magnificent exceptions. To name only two: Richard Beeman has written for our age the classic narrative of the Convention’s history that Carl Van Doren and Catherine Drinker Bowen provided decades ago.10 At the age of ninety, George Athan Billias has offered an unprecedented look at the world-wide impact of American constitutionalism.11
While fine recent studies by Owen Ireland and Christopher Collier continued to look at patterns of state allegiance, arguing respectively that religious (Pennsylvania) and a variety of local differences (Connecticut) shaped responses to the Constitution, younger scholars have turned away from investigation of political alignments and attempted to figure out just what the Constitution meant—to whom and when.12 In general, they have looked more closely at what the Federalists and their opponents meant by ideas such as the people, liberty (of speech, assembly, religion, equality, the right to bear arms, etc.), representation, federalism, and sovereignty, and how these ideas dealt or failed to deal with women, African Americans, and those granted little or no participation in the “public sphere” of white propertied men whom former generations had uncritically termed “the people.”13
Three excellent examples of the...