Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Survey: Founding Frames

While the colonial period can prove a hard sell, few students debate the significance of the founding. Such interest provides an opportunity for introducing new work in the area, along with larger themes – some capable of tying the entire survey together. To take just a few examples, Alison LaCroix’s recent Ideological Origins of American Federalism opens the possibility of assessing American legal history through the lens of changing notions of federalism (a topical question given current interest in originalism generally); Daniel Hulsebosch’s Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664-1830 opens the door for a cosmopolitan inquiry (particularly well-suited for global looks not only at the founding but slavery, the Caribbean roots of the Civil War, the imperialist origins of Jim Crow, Progressivism’s “Atlantic Crossings,” World War I, World War II, and the Cold War), while Pauline Meier’s new book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution 1787-1788 invites a ground-up, social history approach. Though each book could easily fit into a traditional survey course, they also present the possibility of more thematically driven, provocative inquiries. Take Meier, for example. Her focus on the ratification debates reveals a considerable amount of what Larry Kramer might call “popular constitutionalism,” itself a useful meta-theory for survey purposes. Further, Meier’s study contextualizes Madison’s description of rights as little more than “parchment barriers,” legal protections that are largely contingent on popular will, a point that Jack Rakove captures nicely in Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. Once introduced, these sources provide a consistent, compelling means of analyzing the history of rights in America, including the rights of labor and business – always with an eye to political context. Any other founding frames come to mind?

Photo credit: Howard Chandler Christy