Book Review of What Did the Constitution Mean to Early Americans

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In the book, What Did the Constitution Mean to Early Americans?, Edward Countryman, the general editor, selects and introduces five reading selections by authors including Isaac Kramnick, Stephen E. Patterson, Gordon S. Wood, Jan Lewis, and Jack Rakove. Countryman’s purpose is to demonstrate to students the method historians use to examine historical issues and problems. This book is a series of related essays and the main topic addressed is how different kinds of people in America responded and debated about the Constitution and why historians have difficulties deciding any single meaning the founding generation of Americans might have held.

In the introduction, Countryman provides basic historical context about the people and issues during the time of the Constitution for readers who are not familiar with it, because it helps the reader better understand the rest of the book. He selects five essays exploring what the political issues were in 1787, whether the Framers were counter-revolutionaries, what the Federalists achieved, whether the Constitution created a republic of white men, and whether we can know the original intent of the Framers. Countryman uses each of these essays to answer a question related to the book’s title.

The book is written quite clearly depending on the reader, but the essays are long and drawn out. The essays never seemed to end and there was never any information that grabs the reader’s attention. Countryman’s goal to draw students into historical discussions and broaden their interest in history did not work that well. It seemed like the each essay would focus on one main idea and then expand and provide so much information that it was very easy to get lost in the essay and lose interest. For example, the first essay, “The ‘Great National Discussion’: The Discourse of Politics in 1787”, by Isaac Kramnick was very long and covered a lot of material, which made it very difficult to understand and follow. The book’s main...
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