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St. George Tucker’s Jeffersonian Constitution

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty. 

One could argue that there are two basic visions for America: the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian. The former is nationalist, calling for centralized power and an industrial, mercantilist society characterized by banking, commercialism, and a robust military. Its early leaders had monarchical tendencies. The latter vision involves a slower, more leisurely and agrarian society, political decentralization, popular sovereignty, and local republicanism. Think farmers over factories.

Both have claimed the mantle of liberty. Both have aristocratic elements, despite today’s celebration of America as democratic. On the Hamiltonian side we can include John Adams, John Marshall, Noah Webster, Henry Clay, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln. In the Jeffersonian camp we can place George Mason and Patrick Henry (who, because they were born before Jefferson, could be considered his precursors), the mature (rather than the youthful) James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, Abel Upshur, and Robert Y. Hayne. The Jeffersonian Republicans won out in the early nineteenth century, but since the Civil War, the centralizing, bellicose paradigm has dominated American politics, foreign and monetary policy, and federal institutions.

St. George Tucker falls into the Jeffersonian category. View of the Constitution of the United States, published by Liberty Fund in 1999, features his disquisitions on various legal subjects, each thematically linked. Most come from essays appended to his edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Born in Bermuda, Tucker became a Virginian through and through, studying law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, whose post at the law school he would eventually hold. On Tucker’s résumé we might find his credentials as a poet, essayist, and judge. He was an influential expositor of the limited-government jurisprudence that located sovereignty in the people themselves, as opposed to the monarch or the legislature, which, he believed, was a surrogate for the general will in that it consisted of the people’s chosen representatives.

Tucker furnished Jeffersonians with the “compact theory” of the Constitution:

The constitution of the United States of America . . . is an original, written, federal, and social compact, freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several states of North-America, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; whereby the several states, and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government of the United States; and by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Under this model, each sovereign, independent state is contractually and consensually committed to confederacy, and the federal government possesses only limited and delegated powers—e.g., “to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations.”

Employing the term “strict construction,” Tucker decried what today we’d call “activist” federal judges, insisting that “every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.” Strictly construing the language of the Constitution meant fidelity to the binding, basic framework of government, but it didn’t mean that the law was static. Among Tucker’s concerns, for instance, was how the states should incorporate, discard, or adapt the British common law that Blackstone had delineated.

Tucker understood the common law as embedded, situated, and contextual rather than as a fixed body of definite rules or as the magnificent perfection of right reason, a grandiose conception derived from the quixotic portrayals of Sir Edward Coke. “[I]n our inquiries how far the common law and statutes of England were adopted in the British colonies,” Tucker announced, “we must again abandon all hope of satisfaction from any general theory, and resort to their several charters, provincial establishments, legislative codes, and civil histories, for information.”

In other words, if you want to know what the common law is on this side of the pond, look to the operative language of governing texts before you invoke abstract theories. Doing so led Tucker to conclude that parts of English law were “either obsolete, or have been deemed inapplicable to our local circumstances and policy.” In this, he anticipated Justice Holmes’s claim that the law “is forever adopting new principles from life at one end” while retaining “old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off.”

What the several states borrowed from England was, for Tucker, a filtering mechanism that repurposed old rules for new contexts. Tucker used other verbs to describe how states, each in their own way, revised elements of the common law in their native jurisdictions: “modified,” “abridged,” “shaken off,” “rejected,” “repealed,” “expunged,” “altered,” “changed,” “suspended,” “omitted,” “stricken out,” “substituted,” “superseded,” “introduced.” The list could go on.

The English common law, accordingly, wasn’t an exemplification of natural law or abstract rationalism; it was rather the aggregation of workable solutions to actual problems presented in concrete cases involving real people. Sometimes, in its British iterations, it was oppressive, reinforcing the power of the king and his agents and functionaries. Thus it couldn’t fully obtain in the United States. “[E]very rule of the common law, and every statute of England,” Tucker wrote on this score, “founded on the nature of regal government, in derogation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind, were absolutely abrogated, repealed, and annulled, by the establishment of such a form of government in the states.”

Having been clipped from its English roots, the common law in the United States had, in Tucker’s view, an organic opportunity to grow anew in the varying cultural environments of the sovereign states. In this respect, Tucker prefigured Justice Brandeis’s assertion in Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins (1938) that “[t]here is no federal general common law.” Tucker would have agreed with Brandeis that, “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.”

In fact, summarizing competing contentions about the Sedition Act, Tucker subtly supported the position that “the United States as a federal government have no common law” and that “the common law of one state . . . is not the common law of another.” The common law, in Tucker’s paradigm, is bottom-up and home-grown; it’s not a formula that can be lifted from one jurisdiction and placed down anywhere else with similar results and effects.

By far the most complex essay here is “On the State of Slavery in Virginia,” which advocated the gradual extirpation of slavery. With admirable clarity, Tucker zeroed in on the hypocrisy of his generation:

Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.

Despite his disdain for the institution of slavery, Tucker expressed ideas that are racist by any measurable standard today—for instance, his notion that slavery proliferated in the South because the climate there was “more congenial to the African constitution.”

On the level of pure writing quality and style, Tucker had a knack for aphorism. “[T]he ignorance of the people,” he said, “is the footstool of despotism.” More examples: “Ignorance is invariably the parent of error.” “A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword.”

Reading Tucker reminds us that for most of our country’s formative history the principal jurisprudential debates were not about natural law versus positivism, or originalism versus living constitutionalism, but about state versus federal authority, local versus national jurisdiction, the proper scale and scope of government, checks and balances, and so forth. To the extent these subjects have diminished in importance, Hamilton has prevailed over Jefferson. Reading Tucker today can help us see the costs of that victory.

The Moral Case for Property Rights

In Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Economics, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Philosophy, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on March 9, 2016 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here at the Library of Law and Liberty.

The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University has become a hub of conservative constitutionalism and natural law theory, a forum where mostly likeminded scholars and public intellectuals can come together for constructive dialogue and critique. Directed by Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, the program has hosted established and emerging scholars alike. Adam MacLeod is one of the latter—a figure to watch, a fresh and tempered voice in the increasingly ideological field of jurisprudence and legal theory. During his James Madison fellowship, with the support and advice of his colleagues, MacLeod wrote Property and Practical Reason, his first book.

MacLeod frames his normative claims and pleas within the common law context. And he gives us his thesis in his crisp opening sentence: “This book makes a moral case for private property.” He adds that “institutions of private ownership are justified.”

That institutions of private ownership are now jeopardized is upsetting. Before the 18th century, it was simply taken for granted in most Western societies that private property rights incentivized both work and custodianship and served moral ends. Leaders of advanced nations understood that the opportunity to own land or goods motivated people to work; that work, in turn, contributed to the aggregate health of the community; and that once ownership was attained, owners preserved the fruits of their labor and likewise respected the fruits of others’ labor as having been dutifully earned. There were, of course, violations of these principles in Western societies, which is why the law protected and promoted private ownership.

Even absolute monarchs across Europe centuries ago understood the instinctual drive for personal ownership and, consequently, allowed their subjects to obtain at least qualified possession of land and real property. During the Enlightenment, however, philosophers such as John Locke awakened the Western intellect to the stark reality that private property rights were routinely violated or compromised by monarchs and sovereigns at the expense of morality and at odds with the natural law. Because humans own their bodies, Locke maintained, any object or land they removed or procured from nature, which God had provided humanity in common, was joined to those people, who, so long as no one else had a legitimate claim to such object or land, could freely enjoy a right of possession exclusive of the common rights of others.

It’s surprising that Locke isn’t mentioned in MacLeod’s defense of reason and private property, since Locke more than any other figure in the Western tradition—let alone the British tradition in which the common law emerged—made the reason-based case for the morality of private property ownership. “God,” Locke said, “who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.” On this score MacLeod echoes Locke without giving him attention.

MacLeod advocates the type of mediated dominion of private ownership that, he says, existed at common law. Under the common law, he argues, dominion was mediated because it was restrained by the normative guides of “practical reasonableness.” He does not fully delineate what unmediated dominion looks like. But presumably it has something to do with “many contemporary accounts” that, he claims, “view property as an individual right” and facilitate an “atomization of private property” that’s “unnecessary and unhelpful.” An example might have polished off this point, since in the opening chapters it’s not always obvious to which property arrangement mediated dominion is allegedly superior.

He does, however, supply helpful examples of mediating private institutions under the common law: families and family businesses, religious associations such as churches or synagogues, civic associations, and other such cooperative forms that exercise modest control or otherwise influence a person’s claim to outright ownership. For instance, one’s community may reasonably insist that my absolute ownership of a weapon does not permit one’s use of that weapon to threaten or injure another except in self-defense. It may likewise restrict the profligate use of scarce resources, or the reckless use of intrinsically dangerous resources to the manifest detriment of one’s immediate neighbors.

The author submits that, under the common law, which illustrates constructive administration of property rights, private ownership is never total or unqualified but always subject to reasonable restraint as prescribed by custom and community. He intimates that one thing that makes private ownership reasonable is its promotion of reasonable behavior; the very reasonableness of private property is self-perpetuating. The owner of property who’s confident his ownership is legally honored and enforced will pursue future gain; as the number of such owners multiplies, the corporate prosperity of society increases.

MacLeod rejects consequentialist arguments for private property and seeks to justify private ownership on the basis of morality. He shows that private ownership is not just optimal by utilitarian standards but is practically reasonable and morally good.

In so arguing, he navigates around two anticipated criticisms: first that his defense of private property and promotion of common law standards and conditions are remedies in search of an illness, and second that beneath his proposed remedy is the sickness he wants to cure.

By discussing the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jeremy Waldron, J. E. Penner, and Larissa Katz, among others, MacLeod proves he’s not remonstrating against straw men but engaging actual thinkers with real influence on our working perceptions of property rights. The problems he confronts are palpable: regulatory takings, trespass, taxation, riparian-right disputes, adverse possession, and waste, among others.

In depicting mediated dominion as a form of voluntary “plural ownership” that excludes state coercion, moreover, he reassures readers that a common law property regime does not contravene private ordering, despite the fact that the common law dates back to periods when English monarchs retained total and ultimate control of the land within their jurisdiction under the Doctrine of the Crown; forced owners to hold property rights in socage; confiscated property from rivals and dissidents; redistributed property in exchange for loyalty and political favors; and permitted and at times approved of slavery and villainy.

These unreasonable elements of the common law tradition do not square with the case that MacLeod makes for practical reasonableness; yet the common law tradition he invokes is sufficiently flexible and adaptive to modify or eradicate rules that perpetuate unreasonable practices and behaviors. He reminds us, too, that “slavery was for a long time unknown at common law, and its rise in positive law derogated common law rights and duties.” In other words, the rise of the English slave trade “is a story of lawmakers first departing from, then returning to, common law norms.”

Following if not synthesizing John Finnis and Joseph Raz, MacLeod recommends in the property-law context something akin to perfectionist liberalism and value pluralism. The pluralism championed by MacLeod involves multiplying the options for deliberating agents: the more room there is for rational choice, the more diverse and numerous are the opportunities to exercise human reason. These opportunities may be circumscribed by the morality of the community that is inherent in the rules that reflect basic values. The law is by nature coercive, but it is good to the extent it enables practical reason and restricts bad behavior, as determined by the net, collaborative efforts of non-state actors. MacLeod calls these combined actors members of “intermediary communities.”

The trope of individualism and community is for MacLeod a framing device for advocating mediated dominion as an incentivizing force for moral action. He skillfully and meticulously affirms that private ownership, which is conditional on the reasonable limitations established by collective norms, is reasonable not only for instrumental purposes (because it works well and facilitates constructive social relations) but also because it is good in itself. Summoning the commentary of Thomas Aquinas, William Blackstone, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Joseph Story, Georg Friedrich Hegel, F.A. Hayek, Neil MacCormick, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Epstein, and Robert P. George, MacLeod also manages to work in unexpected references to writers who do not immediately spring to mind as jurisprudents: Richard Weaver, Wendell Berry, Charles Murray, John Tomasi, and Milton Friedman. This range demonstrates the importance of property law across disciplines and in broad contexts.

To profit from this book you must, I think, hold in abeyance any assumptions or readymade generalizations you have about the nature and function of private property. You’d benefit as well from a prior familiarity with the field and discourse of property jurisprudence, not to mention the new natural law theories. I make this observation as an outsider myself. If you can’t immediately define terms like “usufruct,” either because you’ve never heard of them or because it’s been too long since you studied for a bar examination, you’ll likely need Black’s Law Dictionary and other resources close at hand as you piece through MacLeod’s rationale. Readers in other disciplines might find that the chapters presuppose an awareness of, say, the essentialist debate over whether exclusion or use defines property norms, or might question the meaning and import of “personalist” approaches to private property that emphasize the doctrines of positive liberty and personal autonomy.

Such disciplinary specificity isn’t a bad thing. One hopes, in fact, that it would motivate curious readers to undertake further study and inquiry. Yet specialization limits what a book can accomplish.

MacLeod exhibits a disposition to be philosophical rather than sociological, adopting as he does a neutral, academic tone free of animus and personal pique, arguing from logical deduction rather than concrete data or statistics. Whether this approach redounds to his advantage depends on what he wants to achieve. If he’s writing only for an academic audience of philosophers and political theorists, he’s succeeded admirably, but if his goal is to reach beyond the narrow confines of the academy, spreading his influence as widely as possible, he has fallen short. The prose is accessible to scholars and advanced graduate students, but the average lawyer will find no practical instruction in the book and might even question the at times challenging syntax and vocabulary that can obscure basic points. If economists ignore the book for its rejection of consequentialist arguments, however, it’s to their disadvantage.

No common reader, I’m afraid, will read this book from cover to cover, and that’s a pity because the subject is important, especially given the spread of eminent-domain abuse and the general embrace of egalitarianism, redistributivism, and Rawlsian notions of social justice by Americans today. The desire for private ownership is a primordial fact. We need more books and treatises that examine at a fundamental level how and why we alienate, possess, and exchange property. At around $100, Property and Practical Reason is prohibitively expensive for curious undergraduates, and also for courses in graduate studies. Moreover, the law schools may well ignore it due to its focus on abstract jurisprudence.

All that said, this book should be read—and will be, by the people who know about and are sympathetic to the work of the James Madison Program. Unfortunately, that’s not many people. Not enough, anyway. There’s no cottage industry for the philosophy of practical reasonableness. Yet there ought to be, and the reception of MacLeod’s work might tell us whether there can be. Those of a philosophical bent will delight not just in the conclusions MacLeod reaches, but in the way he reaches them: framing and reframing his sinuous arguments until his central theses become refrains. This reviewer found it a delightfully industrious, hard-won defense of private property, and well worth the high sticker price.

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