Keith E. Whittington

Professor of Politics

Princeton University


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Constitutional Construction: Divided Powers and Constitutional Meaning



Constitutional Construction argues that the Constitution has a dual nature. The first aspect, on which legal scholars have focused, is the degree to which the Constitution acts as a binding set of rules that can be neutrally interpreted and externally enforced by the courts against government actors. This is the process of constitutional interpretation. But according to Whittington, the Constitution also permeates politics itself, to guide and constrain political actors in the very process of making public policy. In so doing, it is also dependent on political actors, both to formulate authoritative constitutional requirements and to enforce those fundamental settlements in the future. Whittington characterizes this process, by which constitutional meaning is shaped within politics at the same time that politics is shaped by the Constitution, as one of construction as opposed to interpretation.

Whittington goes on to argue that ambiguities in the constitutional text and changes in the political situation encourage political actors to construct their own constitutional understandings. The construction of constitutional meaning is a necessary part of the political process and a regular part of our nation's history, how a democracy lives with a written constitution. The Constitution both binds and empowers government officials. Whittington develops his argument through intensive analysis of four important cases: the impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson, the nullification crisis, and reforms of presidential-congressional relations during the Nixon presidency.

Praise for Constitutional Construction:

“This is a superb, pathbreaking book that demonstrates the dual nature of constitutional change. . . . Like all paradigmatic, pathbreaking scholarship, this book raises important theoretical issues and subjects for future empirical study. It is must reading for a wide range of scholars of American institutions and political development, law and courts, history, and American political thought.”

            Ronald Kahn, American Political Science Review


“Whittington's book is among the most important recently published about constitutional theory and history.”

            Mark Tushnet, Journal of Interdisciplinary History


“This book is an important addition to modern constitutional theory. Whittington brings to life an old but not well understood idea—that constitutional development is the product of judicial interpretation and binding rules and of political practice.”

            Joel Grossman, Choice


“A bolt of scholarly lightning.”

            John Harrison, Constitutional Political Economy

Published Reviews of Constitutional Construction:

American Political Science Review (March 2000)

Law and Politics Book Review

Journal of Interdisciplinary History (Autumn 2000)

Ethics (April 2001)

Humane Studies Review (Fall 2000)

Constitutional Political Economy

Choice (February 2000)

Political Studies (March 2001)

Canadian Public Administration (Spring 2000)

Perspectives on Political Science (Spring 2001)

Law and Society Review (2001)

Journal of Southern History (February 2001)

Modern Age (2001)

The Weekly Standard (March 6, 2000)

Times Literary Supplement (August 31, 2001)

Washington Times (August 8, 1999)

Federal Lawyer (March/April 2002)

Court Review (Fall 1999)

Bimonthly Review of Law Books

Rhetoric and Public Affairs (2001)

The Historian



Harvard University Press

June 1999 (May 2001)

320 pages, cloth, paper

ISBN 0-674-16541-1 (cl), 0-674-00583-X (pb)

$49.95 (cl), $24.95 (pb)

Table of Contents

Harvard University Press description



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