Preface (1986)

Author:Leonard W. Levy, Kenneth L. Karst, Dennis J. Mahoney

In the summer of 1787 delegates from the various states met in Philadelphia; because they succeeded in their task, we now call their assembly the Constitutional Convention. By September 17 the delegates had completed the framing of the Constitution of the United States. The year 1987 marks the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention. This Encyclopedia is intended as a scholarly and patriotic enterprise to commemorate the bicentennial. No encyclopedia on the Constitution has heretofore existed. This work seeks to fill the need for a single comprehensive reference work treating the subject in a multidisciplinary way.

The Constitution is a legal document, but it is also an institution: a charter for government, a framework for building a nation, an aspect of the American civic culture. Even in its most limited sense as a body of law, the Constitution includes, in today's understanding, nearly two centuries' worth of court decisions interpreting the charter. Charles Evans Hughes, then governor of New York, made this point pungently in a 1907 speech: "We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is." Hughes's remark was, if anything, understated. If the Constitution sometimes seems to be chiefly the product of judicial decisions, it is also what Presidents say it is—and legislators, and police officers, and ordinary citizens, too. In the final analysis today's Constitution is the product of the whole political system and the whole history of the many peoples who have become a nation. "Constitutional law is history," wrote Professor Felix Frankfurter in 1937, "But equally true is it that American history is constitutional law."

Thus an Encyclopedia of the American Constitution would be incomplete if it did not seek to bridge the disciplines of history, law, and political science. Both in identifying subjects and in selecting authors we have sought to build those bridges. The subjects fall into five general categories: doctrinal concepts of constitutional law (about fifty-five percent of the total words); people (about fifteen percent); judicial decisions, mostly of the Supreme Court of

the United States (about fifteen percent); public acts, such as statutes, treaties, and executive orders (about five percent); and historical periods (about ten percent). (These percentages are exclusive of the appendices—printed at the end of the final volume—and bibliographies.) The articles vary in length, from brief definitions of terms to treatments of major subjects of constitutional doctrine, which may be as long as 6,000 words, and articles on periods of constitutional history, which may be even longer. A fundamental concept like "due process of law" is the...

To continue reading