Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution by Forrest McDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I received this book as a gift and dropped in without knowing it was part three of a historical trilogy.
With Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, historian Forrest McDonald completes the series he began with We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, and followed with E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790.
McDonald submitted the first in the series as a corrective response to another study of the Founders, which had inappropriately interpreted the Constitution as a document “serving the economic interests of the Framers as members of the propertied class.”
In Novus Ordo Seclorum, or “new order of the ages,” McDonald completes his original argument that the Founders didn’t have a singular, shared, economic interest, while also responding to a consensus that had emerged among historians pinning the Constitution’s foundation to neoclassical republican ideology.
This consensus McDonald finds “ultimately unsatisfying” for a similar reason, because “it fails to distinguish among the several kinds of republicanism that were espoused,” reflecting regionally different social and economic norms.
While the Founders had many things in common – shared experiences, a shared reverence for republican governance, and knowledge of history and political theory – they often had different understandings of the terms, principles and preferred means.
And perhaps just as striking, the ideological reference points at their disposal were incompatible. Nothing in history or in theory had led them directly to the decisions they made in forming the Constitution, nor had they arrived at the outcome without serious deliberation, repeated compromises, and a leap of faith.
The result was a Constitution unlike any previously written, detailing a government assembled like none had ever been. There was no terminology even to describe its form, so the word “republic” was appropriated and redefined.
McDonald makes his case by offering “a reasonably comprehensive survey of the complex body of political thought (including history and law and political economy) that went into the framing of the Constitution.”
The survey is not an easy read, and it could certainly benefit from some formatting enhancements (subheadings, numbered lists, etc.). There is no captivating narrative, nor any engaging drama, just a sober presentation of facts, littered with footnotes. That’s the reason I give it a two-star rating, despite the importance of the subject, and the seriousness and reverence with which it is examined.
The serious reader will learn much about the context that shaped the Founders’ opinions, what ideas were at the ready, what kind of legal environment had been their custom, and what they had meant by key terms such as liberty, property, and equality.
McDonald also catalogs what was then understood about the relatively new economic field of study, and he identifies the camps that formed around various points during the Constitutional Convention.
What I appreciate most from Novus Ordo Seclorum is the impression of the Constitution as a delicate collage, the product of a diverse array of thinkers, compromises and considerations. The whole is stronger than the parts, and if any of them had been more or less dominant, the entire project could have fallen apart quickly, or never been completed in the first place.