Political Science Now

NEH Grant Recipient, Jack Rakove, Talks Importance of Writing for a Political Audience

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States and supports research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities. The organization funds projects across a range of disciplines, including political science, through a diverse array of opportunities. This spring, NEH announced $21.1 million in funding for 248 humanities projects. Projects funded in this round include Enduring Questions Grants, which support development of an undergraduate course “that grapples with a fundamental question addressed by the humanities.”

Jack Rakove‘s principal areas of interest include the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political theories and practices 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 for History in 1997. In this work, Rakove argues that originalism, the practice of interpreting the Constitution by a fixed set of the original framers’ intentions, should not be the only approach to settling today’s judicial questions.

Tell us more about your research project at the Stanford University.
I am proud to be a member of both the History and the Political Science Departments at Stanford, but I remain much more the historian than a political scientist. (The last time I integrated an equation was during the LBJ years; it would take a heroic effort to get me through “math camp.”) So when I think about writing political and constitutional history, my lifelong fields, I always think about the kind of narrative I want to construct. Working that out is something I do in practice, when I am actually writing. And when one writes a book for a general (if educated) audience, as the NEH Public Scholar fellowship expects one to do, one always has to be mindful of your audience, and to think of ways in which you can incorporate your analytical interests and scholarly knowledge into an accessible narrative that will pull readers along with it.

What are your next steps and plans for your research?
The project I plan to pursue is to write The Ticklish Experiment: A Political History of the Constitution, 1789-2016. The title phrase comes from James Madison’s Federalist 49, an important essay in which Publius reminds his readers that constitution-making is a difficult matter. There are, of course, many political histories of different moments of constitutional controversy, from the heated debates of the 1790s that led to the creation of the first party system to, say, the ongoing struggle over abortion or the war against terror. But curiously, no one to my knowledge has ever really attempted to write a narrative political history of the Constitution from its implementation in 1789 to the present. There are some textbooks and interpretive surveys out there, but these emphasize constitutional law far more than constitutional politics. At this vexed moment in the nation’s history, with so many complaints about the reigning impasse in Washington, it seemed like the right moment to try a project like this. Equally important, because Americans commonly assume that constitutional questions are basically a problem for courts, it would be a great aid to explain and illustrate how our entire system of constitutional governance has evolved over time. While I remain skeptical that our current political problems are primarily a product of the constitutional system per se, we cannot think critically about these problems if we lack a coherent political history of the Constitution itself.

How will the NEH Grant help you accomplish those steps? What advice do you have for young researchers/scholars?
The real importance of receiving the NEH Public Scholar Fellowship (beyond the fact that it rounds out my sabbatical), is that it reminds one of the importance of writing for a public audience. How to do that is something that political scientists need to start thinking about. The fact is that historians place much greater emphasis on the art of writing engaging prose than political scientists do. As far as I can tell, political science scarcely cares about that question. Creating a formal model (something I am constitutionally incapable of doing) is intellectually important–but so is the capacity to engage citizens. Thinking about how one might do that is a challenge young scholars should try to tackle.

Also, learn more about NEH opportunities on its website and on the APSA Grants page. Read more about Jack here.