With the recent news of historian Edmund Morgan’s passing at age 97 I was inspired to thumb through one of my favorite books, Inventing the People. One of the things I love generally about Morgan’s work is the ease with which he wrote. Morgan wrote simply, gracefully, and efficiently. This has been a major theme in his obituaries and memorials. Perhaps one of the best memorials I’ve read so far is a piece of advice Morgan passed on to Honor Sachs (and to most of his students I’m sure): “Put an actor in every sentence.”
Morgan’s books were also conceptually rich without being theoretically exhausting. His goal was not to weigh readers down, but to open them to new worlds of ideas. He did that with the skill of a master historian. For those who have never read Inventing the People, just read the preface (3 whole pages!), and you’ll get a taste of Morgan in high form.
Inventing the People remains relevant in many ways, as does most of Morgan’s scholarship. But for legal scholars the book is of most importance to those writing within the popular constitutionalism turn in constitutional theory and history. This turn has generated new interest and new directions in constitutional history. For example, popular constitutionalism’s focus on the constitutional ideas and practices of ordinary people has intersected nicely with the training in social history that most of us with Ph.D.’s in history receive.
One of popular constitutionalism’s limitations, though, is that exactly who constitutes “the people” remains under-explored. For most popular constitutionalists, “the people” are assumed to be actual people. Certainly, there have to be actual people in order for the people to make sense. But the people is something more than a collection or aggregation of individuals.
Morgan makes this clear by referring to “the people” as, simply, a “fiction” or “make-believe.” (Note that he did not use the terms “ideology” or “discourse.” Just “make-believe.” So delightful!) Of course, Morgan understood that “fiction” (his preferred term) was problematic, as he explained in the preface. But his emphasis was not on the fiction’s untrueness; it was on its believability. Or perhaps we might say more accurately that Morgan was interested in the connection between the untrueness and its believability. This could have led Morgan down a critical, dare I say Gramscian, path. But that was not Morgan. “I can only hope that readers who perservere to the end of the book will recognize that the fictional qualities of popular sovereignty sustain rather than threaten the human values associated with it,” he wrote (p. 15). (I just love his humble invitation to read further.) This is not to say that there isn’t a critical approach to be explored, though.
It could serve popular constitutionalists well to spend some extended time with Morgan’s book, and in particular to consider the fictional dimensions of the people. How the work of actual people becomes the work of the people is a complex historical process, and I’m not convinced that popular constitutionalists have answered that question definitively. But figuring out how the ideas and practices of groups of ordinary people becomes authoritative expression of “the people” is the next move that popular constitutionalists need to make. Fortunately, there is already some movement in that direction.
More importantly, though, I just want to remember Morgan, one of my favorite historians. I’d also like to point out that the good folks over at The Junto will be hosting a roundtable on Morgan’s work this month. So read yourself some Edmund Morgan, and go check it out!