On the face of things, the Constitution is concerned with individual and collective rights - to free speech, assembly, religion and that part about guns. Supreme Court cases serve as public tests of its core precepts, and lightning rods for current political argument. The focus tends to be on the Bill of Rights. Between ‘We the People’ and the end of the 7th Article is everything else, of which the text of the Presidential Oath of Office is the most recognisable. The document’s concern with the architecture of government, combined with disputes between originalists and loose constructionists obscures the fact that the Constitution is not merely a mechanism of domestic law.
In Perfecting the Union: National and State Authority in the US Constitution (Oxford UP, 2020), Max Edling offers a very different account of the creation of the Constitution. It appeared at a juncture when a loose federation of states seized control of a large segment of the American Continent from Britain and sought to establish a lasting republic in a political landscape dominated by Indigenous and European imperial formations. This was an international as opposed to purely national context. Edling’s book reminds us that the founding was not a neat intellectual exercise of drawing up a new government, but part of a messy, protracted and always violent process of carving states out of Indigenous spaces and assuming a position among the powers of the earth.
Max M Edling is Reader in Early American History at King's College, London.
Charles Prior is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull (UK), where he co-leads the Treatied Spaces Research Cluster. His latest publication is Settlers in Indian Country (Cambridge University Press).