the consititution as work of art


In the past century, we have had dozens upon dozens of studies of the origins of the Constitution. Historians, jurists, and legal scholars have all tried to explain the sources and the character of the document. Slauter’s book is the first full-scale effort by a literary scholar to bring the special tools of his discipline to bear on the Constitution and its cultural origins. The result is a smart, strange, and frustrating book. It is a curious mixture of insight and artifice, of careful readings and runaway metaphors, of persuasive arguments and imaginative exaggerations. The historian’s conception of causality is often bent out of shape, and the connections between events become ambiguous and elusive. Still, Slauter’s prose is almost always clear and straightforward, avoiding all of the usual jargon that has plagued much literary writing over the past several decades. Slauter has divided his book into two parts: “The State as a Work of Art” and “The Culture of Natural Rights. ” Each of these parts has three chapters, only loosely related to one another. Consequently, the book is really a collection of six essays on various aspects of the cultural origins of American constitutionalism. Slauter begins by emphasizing a point of which the American Revolutionaries were well aware–that governments and constitutions were the products of a society’s manners, customs, and genius, and at the same time the producers of those cultural inclinations and distinctions. There was a mutual influence, a feedback and an interplay, between government and society, and it was the recognition of these relations that made an eighteenth-century theorist such as Montesquieu so subtle and significant. No doubt the nature of the government had to be adapted to the customs and the habits of the people, but the government itself could shape and reform the character of the people. “It is in the rich terrain of the period’s shifting desire to see politics as an effect of culture and culture as an effect of politics,” observes Slauter, “that it makes sense to consider, as I do in this book, the state as a work of art and the cultural origins of the Constitution of the United States.”

more from Gordon S. Wood at TNR here.