Searching for Rights

Jack N. Rakove, Declaring Rights: A Brief History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1998.

Rakove’s book is part of the excellent Bedford Series in History and Culture. Several of the books I will be examining over the next few days are part of this grouping. The editors of the series indicate that these books are intended to expose readers to the work of historians, particularly the study of evidence. All of these books, no matter the topic, combine first rate context, as well as important historical documents. The idea is to get students thinking about the kinds of evidence historians use when they are working out the problems of the past.

Declaring Rights explores the question of how rights are “declared” and why this process occurs. Pr. Rakove provides readers with an excellent sense of how rights have been discussed, changed, and introduced across time. In addition, he strives to draw comparisons between time periods and/or documents as necessary (eg, the Virginia Constitution and the Bill of Rights). Specifically, Rakove is examining ways in which American ideas about rights changed between 1776 and 1779 (2). A key point explored in both the introduction and later writings, as well as peripherally in the documents themselves is the origin of rights. Are they an agreement or a natural occurrence, gifted upon humanity?

Rakove includes a thorough and concise accounting of English and American precedents to rights. He follows this up with an interesting examination of “puzzles” about rights, such as how do you define them, who holds the rights, what format does one use when “declaring” the rights, etc. Following these introductory sections, the text falls into a tried and true format – a question or problem is introduced and explained (eg, “The Legacy of 1689”) and the next section offers excerpts or full versions of the document under discussion.

To be more specific, you might want students to explore the question of the Bill of Rights generally, and more precisely, whether rights should be written down or not. The Federalists’ position on this very question is included. Rakove provides an important chronology of rights as well as “questions to consider” at the conclusion of the book. The documents are perhaps challenging to some readers, but they are excerpted and placed in context in such a manner as to be accessible to many. As guided readings or perhaps as pieces that can be “tampered with,” this collection affords an instructor a wide variety of approaches. In my mind, the text lends itself strongly to a class discussion format led by students who perhaps work in pairs or small groups. These students might be asked to break down a question on the importance of why it was necessary to debate the ratification of the constitution in the first place, AND, what arguments could one raise that might win or lose the debate.

Declaring Rights is a delightful little book and a must have for the historian’s shelf.

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