The Revolutionary Constitution. By David J. Bodenhamer. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 281. $29.95.)


The author of this study offers a brisk overview of American constitutional development organized topically around a central theme—that the Constitution has been interpreted and applied with an eye to achieving what Americans thought at each moment was the right balance between power and liberty. Importantly, David J. Bodenhamer emphasizes that Americans have persistently held the view that power can promote liberty, not merely threaten it. As he puts it a bit indirectly, American views about constitutional rights have been structured around “a tension, always present but increasingly apparent, between individual and collectivist understandings of American guarantees of liberty” (211).

After two chapters on the British antecedents of constitutional ideas in the colonies and on the adoption of the Constitution, both focusing on ideas rather more than interests, Bodenhamer begins his topical survey. Chapters on separation of powers and federalism give the grounds for the author's argument that these structures of government have “changed not because of fundamental shifts in doctrine but because the nation has changed” (90). Successive chapters deal with such topics as property, representation, equality, and rights, before the volume ends with a chapter on national security. Throughout his study Bodenhamer stresses how social change produces constitutional change. On equality, for example, the author writes, “World War II changed what a constitutional amendment could not” (186).

In general, Bodenhamer provides readers with a state-of-the-art summary of contemporary scholarship on constitutional history. The list of additional reading is comprehensive as to books but understandably neglects the large body of law-journal literature. Readers probably should be directed to some of the most important recent scholarship that has begun to revise our understanding of constitutional history. That literature suggests that Bodenhamer might have been more qualified in his perpetuation of the myth of Marbury v. Madison's importance and Tocqueville's assertions about the centrality of adjudication to constitutional law. Recent scholarship has mounted a substantial challenge to the view presented by the author of the so-called formalism of constitutional law in the late nineteenth century.

The discussion of equality contains little on the rights of indigenous Americans or immigrants. In writing that today's constitutional politics reflects a “constitutionally mandated dysfunction,” Bodenhamer may overlook the particularly hyperpolarized party system we now have (113). More generally, he does not present a thorough discussion of the role of political parties in American constitutional development, though he hints at a broader point in writing, “Congress has often been strongest when a vigorous party system exists, and especially when the same party controlled both executive and legislative branches” (110–111). Readers would benefit from a more complete discussion of how variations in the party system—both organizationally and in terms of substantive commitments—have affected constitutional development.

These cautions do little to reduce the value of The Revolutionary Constitution. Scholars will be hard pressed to find a better short introduction to the large story of American constitutional development.