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  • Colin Kidd


Originalist jurisprudence, which enjoins a faithful adherence to the values enshrined in the late eighteenth-century Constitution, has become a prominent feature of contemporary American conservatism. Recovering the original meaning of the Constitution is far from straightforward, and raises major issues of historical interpretation. How far do the assumed historical underpinnings of originalist interpretation mesh with the findings of academic historians? To what extent has the conservative invocation of the Founding Fathers obscured a lost American Enlightenment? Nor is ‘tradition’ in American Constitutional law an unproblematic matter. How far does a desire to restore the original meaning of the Constitution ignore the role of ‘stare decisis’ (precedent) in America's common law heritage? It transpires, moreover, that the various schemes of historical interpretation in American Constitutional jurisprudence do not map easily onto a simple liberal–conservative divide.



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I should like to thank John Hudson for remarks on an earlier draft of this piece.



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1 The Invention of Tradition, ed. E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (Cambridge, 1983).

2 381 US 479 (1965).

3 Cf. Horwitz, M., The Transformation of American Law, 1780–1860 (Cambridge, MA, 1977).

4 Cf. Perlstein, R., The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York, 2014), 262–3, for Congresswoman Barbara Jordan's famous speech to the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate: ‘But when [the Constitution] was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We, the people.”. . .I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake.’ Yet, even this critical preamble notwithstanding, Jordan's speech went on to celebrate the Constitution.

5 Tushnet, M., ‘Critical Legal Studies and Constitutional Law’, Stanford Law Review, 36 (1984), 623–47.

6 Dahl, R. A., How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (New Haven, 2002); Levinson, Sanford, Our Undemocratic Constitution (Oxford and New York, 2006).

7 R. Bellah, ‘Civil Religion in America’, originally published in Daedalus (Winter, 1967), reprinted in American Civil Religion, ed. R. E. Richey and D. G. Jones (New York, 1974), 21–44.

8 Brookhiser, R., What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, their Answers (New York, 2006).

9 The Federalist, ed. T. Ball (Cambridge, 2003), 169.

10 By contrast, see Lazare, D., The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (New York, 1996).

11 Berger, R., Executive Privilege: A Constitutional Myth (Cambridge, MA, 1974).

12 Kalman, L., The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism (New Haven, 1996), 109 .

13 Brest, P., ‘The Misconceived Quest for Original Understanding’, Boston University Law Review, 60 (1980), 204–38.

14 Teles, S., The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement (Princeton, 2008), 135–80.

15 Meese, E. III, ‘Interpreting the Constitution’, in Interpreting the Constitution: The Debate over Original Intent, ed. Rakove, J. (Boston, MA, 1990), 1321 , esp. 17, 20.

16 W. J. Brennan Jr, ‘The Constitution of the United States: Contemporary Ratification’, in Interpreting, ed. Rakove, 23–34, at 23, 25, 28, 31.

17 Bickel, A., The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics (1962; 2nd edn, New Haven, 1986).

18 Kutler, S., The Wars of Watergate (1990; New York, 1992), 407 .

19 For Bork's post-mortem on the affair and its wider juridical significance, see Bork, R., The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York, 1990).

20 Ginsburg, D., ‘Delegation Running Riot’, Regulation, 1 (1995), 83–7, at 84.

21 Solum, L. and Bennett, R., Constitutional Originalism: A Debate (Ithaca, NY, 2011), 2.

22 Goldford, D., The American Constitution and the Debate over Originalism (Cambridge, 2005), 9 .

23 For the varieties of textualism, see O'Neill, J., Originalism in American Law and Politics (Baltimore, 2005), 45 .

24 Rossum, R. A., Understanding Clarence Thomas: The Jurisprudence of Constitutional Restoration (Lawrence, KS, 2014), esp. 12–15.

25 553 US 35 (2008).

26 For the evolution of Scalia's jurisprudence of original meaning and its insistent distance from the originalism of Bork and Thomas, see Murphy, B. A., Scalia: A Court of one (New York, 2014), esp. 111–12, 126, 143, 153, 164, 246–7, 369.

27 Scalia, A., ‘Originalism: The Lesser Evil’, University of Cincinnati Law Review, 57 (1989), 849–65, at 861.

28 The Bork Hearings, ed. R. E. Shaffer (Princeton, 2005), 161.

30 Dworkin, R., Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution (Oxford, 1996); Dworkin, R., ‘Comment’, at 119–26, in Scalia, A., A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law, ed. Gutman, A. (Princeton, 1997); Dworkin, R., Justice in Robes (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 2930 , 117–39.

31 Whittington, K. E., ‘Dworkin's “Originalism”: The Role of Intentions in Constitutional interpretation’, Review of Politics, 62 (2000), 197229 .

32 Balkin, J., Living Originalism (Cambridge, MA, 2012).

33 Brest, ‘Misconceived’, 221, 231.

34 Rakove, J., Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996; New York, 1997), 3 .

35 Ibid., 10.

36 Ibid., 6, 8, 10.

37 Ackerman, B., We the People, i: Foundations (Cambridge, MA, 1991).

38 Ackerman, B., ‘Our Unconventional Founding’, University of Chicago Law Review, 62 (1995), 475573 , at 476.

39 Ibid., 481.

40 Ibid., 568.

41 Amar, A. R., ‘Of Sovereignty and Federalism’, Yale Law Journal, 96 (1987), 1425–520, at 1446–8; Amar, A. R., ‘Philadelphia Revisited: Amending the Constitution outside Article V’, University of Chicago Law Review, 55 (1988), 1043–104, at 1048; Amar, A. R., ‘The Consent of the Governed: Constitutional Amendment outside Article V’, Columbia Law Review, 94 (1994), 457508 , at 462–9, 489, 507.

42 See Ackerman, B., We the People, ii: Transformations (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

43 Ackerman, ‘Unconventional’, 573.

44 Ibid., 571.

45 Ackerman, We the People, i, 51.

46 Ibid., 569.

47 Amar, A. R., The Bill of Rights (New Haven, 1998).

48 Both contributed to the special issue of the Yale Law Journal on republican theory: Sunstein, C., ‘Beyond the Republican Revival’, Yale Law Journal, 97 (1988), 1539; Michelman, F., ‘Law's Republic’, Yale Law Journal, 97 (1988), 1493 .

49 Bailyn, B., The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1967); Bailyn, B., The Origins of American Politics (New York, 1968).

50 Wood, G., The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787 (1969, New York, 1972).

51 Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975).

52 See, amidst a vast literature, Shalhope, R., ‘Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Classical Republicanism in American Historiography’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 29 (1972), 4980 ; Shalhope, R., ‘Republicanism and Early American Historiography’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 39 (1982), 334–56; Banning, L., The Jeffersonian Persuasion (Ithaca, NY, 1978); McCoy, D., The Elusive Republic (Chapel Hill, 1980).

53 Cf. Skinner, Q., ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8 (1969), 353 .

54 Rodgers, D., ‘Republicanism: The Career of a Concept’, Journal of American History, 79 (1992), 1138 , at 33.

55 Fallon, R., ‘What Is Republicanism, and Is it Worth Reviving?’, Harvard Law Review, 102 (1988–9), 1695–735, esp. at 1699, 1723, 1733–4.

56 Cf. the rehabilitation from condescension in Levinson, S., ‘The Embarrassing Second Amendment’, Yale Law Journal, 99 (1989), 637–59.

57 Williams, D., The Mythic Meanings of the Second Amendment (New Haven, 2003); Cornell, S., A Well-Regulated Militia (New York, 2006).

58 Cf. Kelly, A. H., ‘Clio and the Court: An Illicit Love Affair’, Supreme Court Review (1965), 119–58.

59 Cf. Richards, N. M., ‘Clio and the Court: A Reassessment of the Supreme Court's Uses of History’, Journal of Law and Politics, 13 (1997), 809–77; Flaherty, M. S., ‘History “Lite” in Modern American Constitutionalism’, Columbia Law Review, 95 (1995), 523–90; Kalman, Strange Career.

60 Wootton, D., ‘Introduction’, in The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, ed. Wootton, D. (Indianapolis, 2003).

61 Holmes, D. L., The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford, 2006).

62 Cf. Kidd, C., ‘Civil Theology and Church Establishments in Revolutionary America’, Historical Journal, 42 (1999), 1007–26; Munoz, V., God and the Founders (Cambridge, 2009).

63 Cf. Levy, L. W., The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment (New York, 1986).

64 Cf. Curry, T. J., The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (Oxford, 1986); Bradley, G. V., Church–State Relationships in America (Westport, CT, 1987).

65 May, H. F., The Enlightenment in America (New York, 1976). See also Ferguson, R. A., The American Enlightenment 1750–1820 (Cambridge, MA, 1997).

66 Cf. Darnton, R., George Washington's False Teeth (New York, 2003).

67 Cf. New York v. Lochner 198 US 45 (1905).

68 US v. Carolene Products 304 US 144 (1938). Henceforth, the Court would defer to the legislative branch, but would apply stricter standards of scrutiny to legislation which appeared to violate Constitutional prohibitions, to distort the political process or to discriminate against minorities.

69 Barnett, R., Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (Princeton, 2004).

70 Napolitano, A., The Constitution in Exile (Nashville, 2006).

71 Barnett, R., ‘Scalia's Infidelity: A Critique of “Faint-Hearted” Originalism’, University of Cincinnati Law Review, 75 (2006), 724 , at 13.

72 Bork Hearings, ed. Shaffer, 106.

73 See e.g. Barnett, Restoring; Barnett, R., ‘The Ninth Amendment: It Means What it Says’, Texas Law Review, 85 (2006), 185 .

74 See McDonald v. City of Chicago 561 US 742 (2010).

75 McDowell had previously proposed procedural solutions to tackle the problem of judicial overreach: see McDowell, G., ‘A Modest Remedy for Judicial Activism’, Public Interest, 67 (Spring 1982), 320 .

76 For the Straussians, see – variously and subjectively – Drury, S., Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York, 1997); Norton, A., Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven, 2004); Burnyeat, M., ‘Sphinx without a Secret’, New York Review of Books (30 May 1985), 30–6; C. and Zuckert, M., The Truth about Leo Strauss (Chicago, 2006).

77 Deutsch, K. L., ‘Leo Strauss, the Straussians and the American Regime’, in Leo Strauss, the Straussians and the American Regime, ed. Deutsch, K. L. and Murley, John A. (Lanham, MD, 1999), 5167 . Cf. Rahe, P., Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1982).

78 Diamond, M., ‘Ethics and Politics: The American Way’, in The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, ed. Horwitz, R. H., 3rd edn (Charlottesville, 1986), 75–108, at 81, 92, 95; Diamond, M., ‘Democracy and the Federalist, American Political Science Review, 53 (1959), 5268 , at 62, 64, 66; Diamond, M., ‘The Separation of Powers and the Mixed Regime’ and ‘The American Idea of Equality’, both in As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit: Essays by Martin Diamond, ed. Schambra, W. (Washington DC, 1992), 63 , 249.

79 G. Will, F., Statecraft as Soulcraft (1984), 23–4, 40–1, 159.

80 M. Dry, ‘Herbert Storing: The American Founding and the American Regime’, in Leo Strauss, ed. Deutsch and Murley, 305–28.

81 Storing, H., What the Antifederalists Were For (Chicago, 1981); The Complete Anti-Federalist, ed. H. Storing (7 vols., Chicago, 1981).

82 Berns, W., Freedom, Virtue and the First Amendment (Baton Rouge, 1957); Berns, W., ‘Religion and the Founding Principle’, in The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, ed. Horwitz, R. H., 3rd edn (Charlottesville, 1986), 204–29.

83 Jaffa, H. V., ‘In Defense of Political Philosophy’, National Review (22 Jan. 1982), 3644 , at 41; Jaffa, H. V., Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution (Washington DC, 1994).

84 Pangle, T., ‘Patriotism American Style’, National Review (29 Nov. 1985), 30–4, at 32.

85 Lerner, R., ‘The Supreme Court as Republican Schoolmaster’, Supreme Court Review (1967), 127–80, at 128–9, 156, 159–60.

86 Pangle, T., The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago, 1988), 36 .

87 M. Zuckert, ‘Redefining the Founding: Martin Diamond, Leo Strauss and the American Regime’, in Leo Strauss, ed. Deutsch and Murley, 235–51, at 242. Beard, Charles (1874–1948) had argued in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (New York, 1913) that the Constitution was a ploy to secure the property of financial-mercantile-creditor elites at the expense of indebted agrarian interests.

88 Wood, G., ‘The Fundamentalists and the Constitution’, New York Review of Books (18 Feb. 1988), 3340 .

89 See amidst another vast literature, Nelson, W. E., The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

90 Cf. Levy, L.W., ‘History and Original Intent’, in Levy, L. W., Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution (Chicago, 1988), 313 .

* I should like to thank John Hudson for remarks on an earlier draft of this piece.


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