Stanford News

4/8/97

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Stanford historian Jack Rakove wins Pulitzer Prize

Jack N. Rakove, the Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University, has been awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.

In the book, published by Knopf, Rakove argues that "originalism," the practice of interpreting the Constitution by a fixed set of the Framers' intentions, should not be the only approach to settling today's judicial questions.

"Originalism rests on the assumption that a coherent, unsullied set of meanings was somehow locked into the Constitution at the moment of its adoption," Rakove wrote in a recent essay published in the Stanford Historian. "But the current generation of historians of the American Revolution has emphasized the dynamic, creative, experimental nature of this first chapter in the history of American constitutionalism. That sense of experimentation did not come to a sudden halt in 1788; nor did the participants in this debate themselves think they had decisively solved all the problems with which we still wrestle."

Rakove said he spent the "better part of a dozen years" working on Original Meanings, a book he hopes will be "the standard work for historians about the framing and ratification of the constitution." Original Meanings will have academic and practical significance not only for historians, but also for lawyers and political scientists, he says.

"I've always been a historian first, but I was aware that [the book] would be of some great interest to lawyers as well. There is a lot of interest among political scientists in the question of transition to democratic regimes. It should also be of interest to modern constitutionalists," Rakove said, adding that the American Constitution represents a "paradigmatic model of what a constitution really means."

David Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford, described Rakove as a historian with "three gifts: first, he can take a familiar subject and make us understand it afresh. Second, he has the ability to relate apparently distant historical concerns to the present without belaboring the point or being didactic. And his third gift is his exceptional ability to not get mesmerized by the grand conceptualizing and high theorizing that sometimes distorts historical writings.

"Jack writes very close to the ground and has a very practical sense of how politics works." Kennedy, who describes himself as a Rakove fan, added, "I couldn't be happier for him and for the department, where the rest of us will bask in reflected glory."

George Fredrickson, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of U.S. History, who was a Pulitzer finalist in 1981 for his book White Supremacy, said, "I think it's wonderful. I think it's well deserved. I was once a runner-up, so I'm a little envious." According to Fredrickson, Rakove will be the only active member of the history department who holds a Pulitzer. Carl Degler and Don Fehrenbacher, both professors emeriti of history, were Pulitzer winners in 1972 and 1979, respectively.

James V. Risser, a member of the Pulizer Prize Board, called Rakove's work "an important book in the interpretation of American early history. This is a tremendous honor both for Jack and for the Stanford community." Risser, director of the John S. Knight Fellowships program at Stanford and a two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist, noted that as a Stanford colleague of Rakove's he did not participate in the discussions or voting that resulted in Rakove's award.

Rakove, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1980, is the author of James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (Harper Collins, 1990). He is working on a new book, Declaring Rights: A Constitutional Dilemma, which will be published later this year by Bedford Books. The Pulitzer award includes a $5,000 prize from Columbia University.

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By Elaine Ray