President George Washington's first term had barely begun when three principal framers of the Constitution started arguing about the meaning of its words.
So much for the notion that a single "original intent" can be discerned in the language of this foundational document, says Andrew Shankman, an associate professor of history at Rutgers-Camden.
His new book, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and the American Founding, is to be published next spring by Oxford University Press.
"Thomas Jefferson and James Madison looked at a clause in the Constitution and read it as meaning something fundamentally different from Alexander Hamilton's reading," the author says.
"They disagreed over what a word like necessary means."
Potential readers who, like me, are dismayed by the volcanic tone of Donald Trump's campaign against Hillary Clinton may be comforted by the historical fact that "heated rhetoric and rancor, incredibly charged language and real hostility, are not new" in American politics, says Shankman.
"By the summer of 1793, Thomas Jefferson hated Alexander Hamilton," he adds. "That's the first line of my book."
I got to know Shankman in 2012, when he emerged as one of the sharpest and savviest campus voices against Trenton's ill-conceived attempt to engineer a Rowan University takeover of Rutgers-Camden.
But until I interviewed him last week in his campus office, a conversation we later concluded by phone, I'd never heard Shankman the scholar discourse about a favorite subject: The "early national" period of U.S. history, from the late 18th century until about 1820.
The state of the fledgling nation "was fragile," says Shankman, 46, a Philadelphia resident who joined the Rutgers-Camden faculty in 2005.
"The framers were very conscious of its fragility. They were very concerned it would be just be another example of a failed republican experiment."
About three million people - 700,000 of them enslaved - lived in what had been the 13 colonies when the Constitution was drafted in 1787.
Already saddled with an $80 million debt (a revolution can be expensive), the United States had no central financial institution or mechanism for paying it off.
This sparked the early argument among the trio of framers who are at the heart of Shankman's story.
"I read everything [the three framers] wrote between 1779 and 1793," he says.
"There are three 600-page volumes of the correspondence between Jefferson and Madison alone."
Shankman writes that in order to deal with the debt, Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, pushed for establishment of a national bank.
This put him at odds with Secretary of State Jefferson and House member Madison, of Virginia, who found no such chartering authority in the Constitution on which they had recently collaborated.
"Less than two years after the government was created, the argument is being had by people who were central to creating it," Shankman says.
"Already, the Constitution could mean different things and embody different conceptions of national power."
The dispute also pointed up the essential role of "long, careful, thoughtful, sustained and engaged conversations," in the author's words.
"That process alone imbues a policy with constitutionality," Shankman says. "My book is saying that Madison's thinking developed in the process of arguing with Hamilton" about a national bank.
"Madison, who is rightly called the father of the Constitution, didn't feel that it should confine or constrain sovereign people going forward," he adds.
"He had confidence in a deliberative and thoughtful process in which the people could figure out what their values were.
"Madison believed that it's up to us," says Shankman.
"The question is, are we up to the job?"