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The Madisonian Constitution

Today, we think of constitutional questions as being settled by the Supreme Court.But that is not always the case, nor is it what the framers intended in constructing the three-branch federal government. This volume examines four crucial moments in the United States' political history—the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency and the New Deal, and the Reagan revolution—to illustrate the Madisonian view that the present rise of judicial supremacy actually runs counter to the Constitution as established at the nation’s founding.

George Thomas opens by discussing how the Constitution encourages an antagonistic approach to settling disputes, thereby preserving itself as the nation's fundamental law rather then ceding that role to the president, Congress, or Supreme Court. In considering the four historical case studies, he focuses on judicial interpretations and the political branches' responses to them to demonstrate that competing conceptions of constitutional authority and meaning, as well as intergovernmental disputes themselves—rather than any specific outcome—strengthen the nature of the nation's founding document as a political instrument.

Engagingly written and soundly argued, this study clarifies and highlights the political origins of the nation's foundational document and argues that American constitutionalism is primarily about countervailing power not legal limits enforced by courts.

About the Author

George Thomas is an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He previously taught at Williams College.


Broadly theorized, confidently written, thoroughly researched, and cogent in its argumentation, The Madisonian Constitution may indeed define one approach to American constitutional studies for a generation.

- James R. Stoner Jr., Louisiana State University

With remarkable intellectual range and sensitivity, George Thomas presents the Constitution as a creatively conflictual document whose meaning has been shaped by a history of political contestation. Much like the Constitution he has so perceptively examined, this important book invites the reader to develop philosophical coherence from the wisdom of its contradictions.

- Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn, University of Texas at Austin


In this ambitious, densely written and thought provoking work, Thomas proposes a perspective on constitutional interpretation that is at once a normative theory of constitutional practice and a redescription of constitutional history informed by that practice.

- Douglas C. Dow - Law and Politics Book Review

By departing from traditional perspectives on judicial review, Professor Thomas provides an unconventional, yet refreshing and historically grounded, view of how historical constitutional conflicts have fallen squarely within Madison's vision.

- Harvard Law Review

Thomas’s book paves an important new path for the rest of us in our study of the Constitution and its effect on politics. His account of Madison’s principle of constitutional contestation might well be the best account that yet exists of the reigning principle of our founder’s political thought.

- Benjamin Kleinerman - Review of Politics

In The Madisonian Constitution, Thomas charts a philosophically grounded and historically informed course... showing that James Madison and most others responsible for framing the Constitution, as well as major statesmen who followed, had a more prudent approach in mind.

- Stanley C. Brubaker - Law and Society Review

The Madisonian Constitution reminds readers of that moment when, as Justice Story said, the meaning of the fundamental law was something far more important than the mere lawyers' 'extraordinary gloss' it has become.

- Gary L. McDowell - Journal of American History

Thomas’s Madison points the way to salvation from forms of constitutionalism that either place inordinate power in a small body of elite judges and lawyers, or give up on constitutional government altogether.

- Michael P. Zuckert - Claremont Review of Books

The Madisonian Constitution is a valuable addition to the growing body of literature that seeks to provide a holistic view of how constitutional meaning develops.

- Gerard N. Magliocca - Law and History Review
Johns Hopkins University Press
The Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought
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264 Pages
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Electronic book text
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