By Jack Rakove, William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies, Professor of Political Science and (by courtesy) of Law, Stanford University
When Harvard University Press asked me to prepare an annotated edition of the Constitution, I was at once deeply intrigued and somewhat daunted. On the one hand, having a chance to say what one wished about every clause of the Constitution seemed a challenge worth taking up-even if many of those clauses were rather removed from my immediate interests. On the other hand, each of these clauses has its own independent history of application and interpretation, and who knows how many legal scholars would be lying await out there, eager to pounce on my doctrinal errors, major and minor. As a reader of web-sites like Balkinization and ConLawProf, I knew that the entire corpus of constitutional interpretation ran well beyond my poor power to add or detract.
Fortunately, there were two saving graces to the invitation that I thought would work to my benefit. One was that the edition was never meant to be a massive disquisition or commentary. It was designed to be reasonably short and snappy, with something of importance or interest said about every clause, but no pretension of being comprehensive or doctrinally exhaustive. Second, if the publisher really wanted that kind of work, he would turn to someone better qualified to prepare it, not an 18th-century historian. Having the chance to annotate meant that I should know what the main lines of doctrine and interpretation have been. But I remained professionally free to focus on particular clauses as a historian would, paying special attention to origins.