Reviewed by R. B. Bernstein, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law, New York Law School. Rbernstein [at] nyls.edu.
This book’s title crystallizes its case. Professor David J. Bederman of Emory University argues that the framing, adoption, and implementation of the United States Constitution was grounded in a thorough, thoughtful, and well-considered adoption and adaptation of political thought and history from the ancient world, rather than representing a radical break with the past. Bederman has previously examined the influences of the classical world on other spheres of legal and constitutional history (Bederman 2001a; 2001b); the book now under review is the latest – and perhaps the one best suited to a wider audience. Bederman’s fine book stands beside notable earlier works on the subject by Douglass Adair (Adair 1974; 2000), Richard J. Gummere (1965; 1967), Meyer Reinhold (1984), and Carl J. Richard (1994; 2008), while at the same time going beyond these precursors in rigor of scholarship, lucidity of presentation, and modesty of rhetoric.
Bederman lays out his argument in five learned, clearly-written chapters:
Chapter I, “The Framers’ Classical Education and World View” (pp.1-49), demonstrates the familiarity of many of the founding fathers with classical history and literature, as a result of their educational experiences, which stressed the primacy of Greek and Roman literature, and their own intellectual inclinations. Even a largely self-taught figure such as George Washington made sure to familiarize himself with translated versions of the Greek and Roman classics, and adaptations of that literature by such contemporary writers as the English essayist and playwright Joseph Addison (whose play “Cato” was a favorite with Washington).
Chapter II, “Classical Political Models and the Founders” (pp.50-94), examines the general intellectual context in which the ancient world influenced American statesmen’s views of the general problems and principles of human nature, society, politics, and government. In Bederman’s reading, constitutionalism had deep, abiding ancient roots, whatever other bodies of ideas or experience the founding fathers could bring to bear on the subject.
Chapter III, “Constitution-Making and Ancient History” (pp.95-175), examines five subjects – confederations and leagues as models for American federalism; bicameralism as it figured in the framers’ design of the U.S. Senate; executive power; judicial functions; and issues of war and peace refracted through the lens of republican governments in the ancient past. Here Bederman traces the influences and resonances of classical history, thought, [*977] and literature on the American experiments in constitutional design, specifically the process that led to the framing and adoption of the Constitution of the United States in 1787-1788.
Chapter IV, “Modern Resonances” (pp.176-221), turns from history to constitutional theory, seeking to show that the work of the founders might have relevance to and resonances with modern disputes about constitutional interpretation. The focal points of Bederman’s analysis here are sovereign immunity and federalism; executive privilege and accountability; line-item vetoes; the electoral college as a means of choosing the president; and the general question of the nature of republican government in modern American constitutionalism. Here, Bederman does not present a mechanical original-intent interpretation of the Constitution in general or of key constitutional provisions. Rather, he offers a sensitive, nuanced, and persuasive approach to understanding the work of the founders in its wider intellectual context and how that understanding can be of value to modern interpreters of the Constitution. In this way, Bederman offers a valuable modification of the “weak originalism” often associated with Jack N. Rakove of Stanford University, who has long argued that we should accord great persuasive value to the Constitution’s framers and ratifiers because they were “present at the creation,” so to speak, and because they were perhaps the wisest and most learned collection of constitutional and political thinkers in the nation’s history (Rakove 1996; 1990).
Chapter V, “The Classical Constitution” (pp.222-239), sums up the book’s case and once more restates Bederman’s disagreement with the conventional wisdom that the framing and adoption of the U.S. Constitution represented a radical break with the past. Instead, Bederman insists, drawing on his previous chapters, that the architects of the Constitution recognized and sought to maintain continuities between past and present, hoping to learn from Greek and Roman history enduring lessons about constitutional design and the workings of politics and republican governance applicable to their situation in the late 1780s.
Bederman’s book notes where the founding fathers got things wrong as well as where they got them right. His careful sifting of instances when they were misled by faulty texts, or flawed translations, or where their quest for applicable historical precedents and analogies led them to minimize the differences between past and present is one of the most important and enlightening features of his book.
Throughout, Bederman’s work has resonances with Paul A. Rahe’s massive study, REPUBLICS ANCIENT AND MODERN: CLASSICAL REPUBLICANISM AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (Rahe 1992; 1994). Readers will note, however, the difference between Bederman’s even-handed approach to his subject and Rahe’s iconoclastic, contentious interpretation. Rahe first demonstrates with formidable scholarship an array of gaps or clashes between ancient history as modern scholars grasp it and that history as early modern political thinkers or American [*978] constitution-makers understood it, and then demolishes on that basis the case for classical republicanism as a historical factor. By contrast, Bederman highlights the importance that his historical actors give to the ancient past while at the same time acknowledging their deliberate or inadvertent distortions of that past in seeking to make use of it
I have only one qualm about Bederman’s valuable study. I tripped on the book’s threshold, Bederman’s courteous but combative preface (pp.ix-xii). Bederman is convinced, and seeks to convince his readers, that the political thought and history of the classical world were the primary influences on the work of the Constitution’s framers and ratifiers and those who gave it effect – more so than Enlightenment rationalism or English common-law constitutionalism or the experience of the American revolutionaries under their colonial and state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation. Bederman is the latest, and one of the best, in a long and honorable tradition of scholarship seeking to identify a core or root body of ideas and experience as the leading or principal influence on American constitutionalism. Although at various points in his book (pp.xii, 175-176, 220-231) he takes pains to limit or qualify this claim, he still gives the inadvertent impression that he is trying to prove too much; in the process, he risks pawky resistance from some readers. The balance of this review sketches a fallback position for his argument to persuade those readers of the value and importance of Bederman’s enterprise.
Various scholars of the American Enlightenment, including Henry Steele Commager (1975; 1977), Henry F. May (1976), Robert A. Ferguson (1977; 2004), and the present writer (Bernstein with Rice 1987), have sketched a more nuanced vision of the American Enlightenment and the role it played in the origins of the American constitutional system. Rather than seeking to privilege one body of thought and experience over all others, these historians suggest that each of the key figures among the Constitution’s framers, adopters, and interpreters had a different constellation of bodies of ideas and experience in his mind, all of them held in ever-shifting position, tenuous by the epistemological theories of the American Enlightenment. Americans in this era believed, as did their European forebears and contemporaries, that all knowledge was coming together in a great confluence, from which human beings could distill general principles of human nature, society, government, and politics; they believed further that such general principles would guide their experiments in government, possibility to the greater benefit of humanity as a whole.
Instead of denigrating the power and persuasiveness of Bederman’s book, this reading ratifies a slightly more modest claim for the case he makes, a claim that he seems to endorse in the pages noted above – that classical political thought and classical history were vital components of the various syntheses that a range of founding fathers proposed and sought to effectuate, rather than the governing components of a collective synthesis by the founding fathers as a group. That said, this fine book is essential reading for anyone concerned with the origins of the Constitution or the intellectual world that produced it. [*979]
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Adair, Douglass J. 2000. (Mark Yellin, editor/introduction), THE INTELLECTUAL ORIGINS OF JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY: REPUBLICANISM, THE CLASS STRUGGLE, AND THE VIRTUOUS FARMER. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Bederman, David J. 2001a. INTERNATIONAL LAW IN ANTIQUITY. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.
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Rakove, Jack N. (ed). 1990. INTERPRETING THE CONSTITUTION: THE DEBATE OVER ORIGINAL INTENT. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Rakove, Jack N. 1996. ORIGINAL MEANINGS: POLITICS AND IDEAS IN THE MAKING OF THE CONSTITUTION. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Reinhold, Meyer. 1984. CLASSICA AMERICANA: THE GREEK AND ROMAN HERITAGE IN THE UNITED STATES. Cleveland, Ohio: Wayne State University Press.
Richard, Carl J. 1994. THE FOUNDERS AND THE CLASSICS: GREECE, ROME, AND THE AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENT. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Richard, Carl J. 2008. GREEKS AND ROMANS BEARING GIFTS: HOW THE ANCIENTS INSPIRED THE FOUNDING FATHERS. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, R. B. Bernstein.