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Review of Paul Finkelman’s “Supreme Injustice”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Dred Scott, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Laws of Slavery, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Writing on August 8, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Paul Finkelman is an anomaly: a historian with no law degree who’s held chairs or fellowships at numerous law schools, testified as an expert witness in high-profile cases, and filed amicus briefs with several courts. Federal appellate judges, including justices on the United States Supreme Court, have cited his work. Liberal arts professors anxious about the state and fate of their discipline might look to him to demonstrate the practical relevance of the humanities to everyday society.

Finkelman specializes in American legal history, slavery and the law, constitutional law, and race and the law. His new book, Supreme Injustice, tells the story of three United States Supreme Court Justices — John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Roger B. Taney — and their “slavery jurisprudence.” Each of these men, Finkelman argues, differed in background and methodology but shared the belief that antislavery agitation undermined the legal and political structures instituted by the Constitution. Had they aligned their operative principles with the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, liberty rather than racism and oppression might have defined antebellum America.

Finkelman insists that the legacy of Marshall, Story, and Taney had enormous implications for the state of the nation, strengthening the institutions of slavery and embedding in the law a systemic hostility to fundamental freedom and basic justice. These are strong allegations, attributed to only three individuals. Yet the evidence adds up.

Start with Marshall, a perennially celebrated figure who, unlike many of his generation, in particular his occasional nemesis Thomas Jefferson, has escaped scrutiny on matters of race and slavery. Finkelman submits that scholarship on Marshall is “universally admiring” — an overstatement perhaps, but one that underscores the prevalence of the mythology Finkelman hopes to dispel.

Finkelman emphasizes Marshall’s “personal ties to slavery” and “considerable commitment to owning other human beings.” He combs through numerous records and presents ample data to establish that Marshall, a life member of the American Colonization Society, “actively participated in slavery on a very personal level.” Finkelman then turns to Marshall’s votes and opinions in cases, several of which challenged state laws and rulings that freed slaves. In fact, Marshall would go so far as to overturn the verdicts of white Southern jurors and the judgments of white Southern judges who, in freedom suits, sided with slaves and against masters.

Marshall could be an ardent nationalist attempting to effectuate the supremacy of federal law. One is therefore tempted to attribute his rulings against state laws in cases about slavery to his longstanding desire to centralize federal power. But that is only part of the story. Finkelman brings to light exceptions, including when Marshall selectively deferred to state law if doing so meant that slaves remained the property of their masters. Finkelman highlights these decisions to show that Marshall was hypocritical, compromising his otherwise plenary nationalism to ensure that contractual and property arrangements regarding slaves were protected by law.

Story was also a nationalist, having evolved from Jeffersonianism to anti-Jeffersonianism and eventually becoming Marshall’s jurisprudential adjunct. Unlike Marshall, however, Story could sound “like a full-blown abolitionist.” His opinion in United States v. La Jeune Eugenie (1822) was “an antislavery tour de force,” decrying slavery and the slave trade as “repugnant to the natural rights of man and the dictates of judges.”

Yet he prioritized radical nationalism over the rights of humans in bondage. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), writing for the Court, he deemed unconstitutional a state ban on the extradition of blacks out of Pennsylvania for purposes of slavery. Story jumped at the chance to pronounce the primacy of federal law over state law even if it meant employing the Supremacy Clause to validate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. “A justice who had once thought slavery was deeply immoral,” Finkelman bemoans,

rewrote history, misstated precedents, and made up new constitutional doctrine to nationalize southern slave law and impose it on the entire nation. The decision jeopardized the liberty of every black in the North, whether free or fugitive. The injustice of this opinion was profound.

Author of the notorious Dred Scott opinion, Taney is the most predictable of Finkelman’s targets. By the end of the Civil War, he was vehemently denounced and widely despised. Progressives in the early 20th century, most notably Felix Frankfurter, rehabilitated his reputation in part because progressive economic policy during that era promoted Taney’s approach to states’ rights and political decentralization. The mood has changed; most historians now probably agree that Taney “aggressively protected slavery” and “made war on free blacks.” Few law professors would recall Taney’s “early ambivalence about slavery and his defense of the Reverend Jacob Gruber,” who was arrested for sermonizing against slavery at a Methodist camp meeting and subsequently charged with inciting slave rebellion. Finkelman’s chapter on Taney thus runs with the grain, not against it.

At times Finkelman exaggerates or wishfully portrays the role of judges. He asserts that, prior to the Civil War, courts rather than Congress or the executive had “room for protecting the liberty of free blacks, liberating some slaves, providing due process for alleged fugitive slaves, enforcing the federal suppression of the African slave trade, or preventing slavery from being established in federal territories.” This claim may hold up in some of the cases Finkelman discusses (e.g., LaGrange v. Choteau [1830], in which Marshall declined the opportunity to enforce federal law that could have freed a slave who had traveled into free territory), but not in all of them. If a judge were faced with a problem of statutory construction, he (there were only male judges then) could have asked what the language of the statute meant, how it applied to the concrete facts and material rules before him, and whether it was constitutional, but anything more would have arguably exceeded the scope of his office.

The Constitution was silent about slavery until the Civil War Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Prior to them, any attempt to render slavery unconstitutional would have required appeals to natural law, natural rights, or other like doctrines that appear in the Constitution only in spirit, not in letter. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed the Constitution was affirmatively proslavery, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” If this is true, then when judges swear an oath to defend the Constitution (the basic framework of government with which all other laws in the United States must comport), they are also inadvertently vowing to defend the institution of slavery — unless the law is more than what statutes and the Constitution provide, in which case these judges could reach beyond the positive law to principles pre-political and universal.

Finkelman suggests another alternative: that certain constitutional provisions supplied a basis in positive law for antislavery strategies and stratagem. He cites, among other things, the congressional powers exercised in the reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance and the enactment of the Missouri Compromise and Oregon Territory; the admission of new free states into the United States; the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment; the rights of criminal defendants protected by the Sixth Amendment; the Privileges and Immunities Clause; and the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Each of these would have been problematic during the period Finkelman covers. There was not yet a 14th Amendment through which provisions of the Bill of Rights could have been incorporated to apply against the several states, although state constitutions contained protections of fundamental rights that federal judges recognized and affirmed. Moreover, the provisions Finkelman enumerates empowered Congress, not the courts, to pursue robust antislavery measures. Courts could have responded to and interpreted actions and directives of Congress, but they could not have initiated legislation or litigation. Had the Constitution enabled federal judges and the United States Supreme Court to strike down proslavery laws and regulations with ease, the Civil War Amendments might not have been necessary. But they were necessary to facilitate the demise of slavery.

Finkelman speculates about what the courts could have done to advance antislavery causes, but courts cannot do anything unless the right litigants bring the right cases with the right facts before the right tribunals while making the right arguments. Judges do not commence lawsuits but handle the ones brought before them. Finkelman could have examined some cases more closely to reveal how the facts, issues, reasoning, and holdings should have differed in rationale, not just in result. Too many cases receive only cursory treatment; lawsuits are more than picking winners and losers.

At one point, Finkelman accuses Marshall of reading a statute “in favor of slavery and not freedom,” but the statute isn’t quoted. Readers will have to look up the case to decide if Marshall’s interpretation was reasonable or arbitrary — if, that is, his hermeneutics adequately reflected a common understanding of the statutory language or intolerably controverted congressional purpose and prerogative. Finkelman chides departures from precedent, but rarely analyzes the allegedly controlling cases to verify that they are, in fact, dispositive of the later controversy by analogy of received rules.

One is regularly left with the impression that the only issue in the cases Finkelman evaluates was whether a slave should be free or not. Many of the cases, however, involved procedural and jurisdictional complexities that had to be resolved before grand political holdings implicating the entire institution of slavery could be reached. We’re still debating the ambiguities of federalism (e.g., how to square the Supremacy Clause with the Ninth and 10th Amendments) that complicate any exposition of the interplay between state and federal law, so it can seem anachronistic and quixotic to condemn Marshall, Story, or Taney for not untangling state and federal law in a manner that in retrospect would appear to have occasioned more freedom and less bondage.

Then again, it’s hard to fault Finkelman for subjecting these giants of the law to such high standards. That men like Marshall and Story have not been investigated as their contemporaries have in light of the horrors and effects of slavery speaks volumes about the willful blindness of the legal profession and the deficiencies of legal scholarship. Finkelman remains an important voice in legal education and has pushed scholarly conversations about slavery in new directions. At 68, he’s likely got more books left in him. Anxious readers await the next.


Richard Bulliet on The Americas, the Atlantic, and Africa, 1530-1770

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching on August 1, 2018 at 6:45 am

In the following lecture, Richard Bulliet discusses the Americas, the Atlantic, and Africa during the period of 1530-1170:

Richard Bulliet on Transformations in Europe, 1500-1750

In Academia, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Teaching, Western Civilization on July 18, 2018 at 6:45 am

In the following lecture, Professor Richard Bulliet discusses transformations in Europe during the period of 1500 – 1750:

Session Twenty-Six: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Teaching on July 4, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twenty-sixth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses conclusions regarding the History of the World to 1500 CE and presents themes for a forthcoming course regarding the History of the World after 1500 CE:

Carnegie Classifications—What’s All the Fuss?

In Academia, America, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Scholarship on June 27, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Dartmouth falls out of an exclusive group,” declared a 2016 headlinein The Washington Post just days after the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education released its 2015 classifications that moved Dartmouth College from the R-1 (that is, Research 1) to the R-2 (Research 2) category. “A Key Survey Indicates that Dartmouth May Be Losing Its Elite Status,” reads another headline.

A school like Dartmouth hardly risks dropping out of “the elite,” but why would anyone say that?

Dartmouth’s response to the perceived downgrade was muted. “We don’t know what new algorithm they are using to classify institutions,” wrote Diana Lawrence, a university spokeswoman, “so we can’t replicate the data.” Lowered morale since the 2015 classification allegedly has resulted in the closing of Dartmouth’s Gender Research Institute.

Indiana University, which now runs the Carnegie Classifications, recently began reclassifying schools every three rather than every five years. The next round will appear later this year. University leaders have been silent about this development, but according to Doug Lederman, “the foundation’s sorting…sends some institutions into fits of anger or excitement over perceived insult or approval for how they are classified compared to their peers.”

As anxious university administrators await this release, it is worth asking what these classifications mean and why is the R-1 designation so coveted?

Carnegie classifies institutions by type: doctoral universities, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate/associate colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions, and tribal colleges. The research designations everyone talks about (R-1, R-2, R-3) apply only to universities classified as doctoral universities. R-1 indicates “highest research activity,” R-2 “higher research activity,” and R-3 “moderate research activity.”

To be classified as a doctoral university, an institution must award at least 20 research-based doctoral degrees per year. Professional doctorates like a law degree do not count. Among the schools that meet this classification, research productivity is measured by two indices: the number of research doctorates awarded plus research staff, and the amount of research expenditures, scaled to the number of faculty.

Carnegie measures research and development expenditures in science and engineering (S&E), humanities, social science, STEM, business, education, public policy, and social work. These classifications are categorical rather than ordinal: they fit universities within certain descriptive categories but not in order of best to worst. The point of the classifications is not to grade but to group universities according to their program offerings and research expenditures.

Thus, administrators should not treat moves from R-1 to R-2 as demotions or devaluations. After all, quality of education and quality of research cannot be reduced to raw figures by totaling the number of faculty, the number of doctoral programs offered and doctoral degrees awarded, and the amount of money invested in research. These figures account principally for funding and size, not the amount of published material (in peer-reviewed journals or otherwise) and certainly not the excellence of scholarly research. Nor do they account for teacher quality or educational outcomes for students.

Nevertheless, schools moving from R-2 to R-1 celebrated the 2015 Carnegie classifications in press releases. For example, “It is no secret that Ole Miss is one of the top research schools in the south,” read a statement by the University of Mississippi, “but being recognized on a prestigious national level is a true achievement.”

Given the focus of the Carnegie classifications, one wonders why they command such attention. Could not universities game the system, so to speak, by hiring more faculty, throwing money at programs, and graduating more doctoral students in certain disciplines? The answer, of course, is yes—but that does not diminish the standing the Carnegie classifications enjoy.

The reason they are valued is because the Department of Education and U.S. News and World Report, among others, rely on them. (U.S. News explains its methodological reliance on the Carnegie Classifications here). Indirectly, then, the Carnegie classifications are used for rankings and grant eligibility.

Rather than coming up with its own categories, U.S. News relies on Carnegie classifications for its list of national universities, national liberal arts colleges, or regional universities. If, say, Furman University wanted to be ranked alongside Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and MIT, it must increase the number of research doctoral-degree programs it offers to account for Carnegie’s metrics.


The Problem with the Carnegie Classifications

The main problem with the Carnegie classifications is that they create the incentive for educational malinvestment on a grand scale. When a university’s administration seeks to move from R-3 to R-2 or R-2 to R-1, they churn out more doctorates and hire more faculty than the market demands.

That is most notable in the humanities. The number of humanities doctorates awarded has reached record highs while the job market for humanities professors has shrunk. Young people pursuing these doctorates often assume substantial debt only to find themselves with no university employment after graduation. Carnegie in effect rewards universities for conferring an excessive number of research doctorates, thereby contributing to the systemic problem of graduate-student debt and the dearth in faculty hiring, and possibly to the diminishing quality of humanities research.

The Carnegie classifications also fail to account for the quality of scholarly research, or for true faculty productivity. They measure aggregate numbers of people and investment but not the number of peer-reviewed papers published by members of a department or the value or effectiveness of those papers.

Therefore, the Carnegie classifications should really be considered funding categorizations, not research categorizations. Yet too many people treat them as indicators of the productivity of a university faculty or the worth and excellence of research content.

The Carnegie classifications are not per se bad or unhelpful. It is just that they are being misinterpreted and misused to the economic detriment of higher education writ large. Donors, administrators, journalists, university rankers and evaluators, and other stakeholders at universities should monitor the Carnegie classifications and use them as needed to shape the goals and identities of institutions. But these classifications should no longer be considered proxies for the measure of research quality.

Moreover, Carnegie should drop the phrases “highest research activity,” “higher research activity,” and “moderate research activity” that accompany the R-1, R-2, and R-3 label because they are misleading: the Carnegie rankings do not measure research activity but research expenditure. It could be that a university spends money on research without actually yielding research. That would be a poor investment that Carnegie seems, strangely, to value or reward.


The Role of Law Schools in the Classifications

My fellow law-school administrators can do little if anything to help their home institutions that are ranked as doctoral universities move from R-2 to R-1 or R-3 to R-2. (I work at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, whose home institution, Faulkner University, is classified as a master’s college or university according to Carnegie.) J.D. degrees are not research degrees, although a few law schools (Yale or Berkeley among them) offer Ph.Ds in law, which do contribute to the sum of research degrees offered. No matter how productive a law faculty is, its research output will not affect the home institution’s Carnegie classification.

By and large, deans at law schools have not spent much time thinking about the Carnegie classifications. The future, however, may present different challenges and opportunities for law-school deans. “[W]e are planning a change that will reshape membership of the Doctoral Universities and Master’s Colleges and Universities categories,” Carnegie states on its website. “We are doing so to accommodate Doctor’s degree—professional practice within our methodology. These degrees . . . have previously not been considered as part of the Basic Classification Methodology.”

Therefore, by adopting Ph.D. or J.S.D. and S.J.D.  programs (which are research-based and require dissertations for completion), law schools can nudge their universities in the direction of a higher Carnegie research classification. That might seem an attractive inducement, but one that would be economically unsound for most schools. Law deans should resist going the way of the humanities.

Session Twenty-Five: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Teaching on June 20, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twenty-fifth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the History of the World to 1500 CE, focusing on the Maritime Revolution:

Session Twenty-Four: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Teaching, Western Civilization on May 30, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twenty-fourth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the Latin West, 1200-1500:

Session Twenty-Two: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Teaching on May 9, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twenty-second lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the History of the World to 1500 CE, focusing on Tropical Africa and Asia:

Session Twenty-One: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Teaching on April 25, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twenty-first lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the History of the World to 1500 CE, focusing on Mongol Eurasia and its Aftermath:

What is Libertarianism?

In Arts & Letters, Economics, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 18, 2018 at 6:45 am

Definitions of libertarianism often convey a sense that this philosophy is total and complete, that its manifestation in the concrete world is immanently knowable. Vigorous debates about the fundamental tenets of libertarianism dispel any hope that the essence or principal attributes of libertarianism can be easily captured in a brief sentence or paragraph.

The central concern of libertarianism, however, is to maximize individual liberty and economic freedom to enable human flourishing. Liberty and freedom involve the ability of human agents, acting alone or in concert, voluntarily to pursue their wants and goals using their earned talents and natural skills, absent the forcible, coercive mechanisms of government and without infringing on the rights of others to so act.

Elsewhere I have said that “[e]xperimentation is compatible with—perhaps indispensable to—libertarianism to the extent that libertarianism is, as I believe, the search for the correct conditions for human flourishing—as well as the cautious description and reasoned implementation of principles emanating from that condition.”[1]

I used the phrase “to the extent that” to suggest that my conception of libertarianism is not definitive or absolute, that it is subject to scrutiny and debate. I emphasized “the correct conditions for human flourishing” because libertarians have propounded disparate and even contradictory theories about how best to achieve human flourishing.

The conditions that have succeeded to that end have proven themselves to be correct, or at least more correct than demonstratively unworkable alternatives.

The word “search” is meant to underscore the primacy of the intellect and knowledge: Human agents must be free to think and freely articulate the content of their thoughts before practices and institutions—the products of thought—may be tested, refined, verified, modified, adapted, or discarded according to their tangible success within physical (as opposed to purely mental or ideational) experience.

The principles that emerge from this process of applied thinking can be described as libertarian if they aspire to generate and actually generate individual liberty and economic freedom without increasing the forcible interference of government with consensually interacting human agents.


[1] Allen Mendenhall, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism (Lexington Books, 2014), p. 14 (italics added).

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