Original Meanings


American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, MA 01609
United States

Twenty-eight years after he published Original Meanings, Jack Rakove reflects on how debates over deciphering the original meaning of the Constitution’s many clauses now dominate American constitutional jurisprudence. He proposes that while one might assume such inquiries would be inherently historical in nature──asking what the framers of the Constitution intended particular clauses to mean, or what its ratifiers or early commentators understood these provisions to imply──the application of these inquiries today has in fact taken another course. Instead of emphasizing the kinds of sources historians rely on, modern originalists practice a distinctively textual approach to constitutional interpretation, usually described as “public meaning originalism.” This approach suggests that the text had fixed meanings that either informed citizens or learned jurists could readily comprehend.

Rakove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Original Meanings, published in 1996, rested on different premises. It assumed that the Constitution, as it was framed and ratified, was the product of debates that were inherently political in nature. If one did not reconstruct the concerns underlying those debates and decisions, one would never know what its original meaning was, especially when one dealt with the most important and potentially controversial or ambiguous clauses.

The Robert C. Baron Lecture, inaugurated in 2004, brings a distinguished AAS member who has written a seminal work of history to Antiquarian Hall to reflect on the book’s impact on scholarship and society in the years since its first appearance.

This hybrid program will be held in person at Antiquarian Hall and livestreamed to a virtual audience on YouTube. Advance registration is required for both. Doors open at 6:30pm. 



Jack Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science and (by courtesy) law at Stanford, where he has taught since 1980. His principal areas of research include the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political practice and theory of James Madison, and the role of historical knowledge in constitutional litigation. He is the author of six books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (2010), which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize, and the editor of seven others, including The Unfinished Election of 2000 (2001). He was elected to AAS membership in October 2000.

Photo by L.A. Cicero / Stanford News Service