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A Better Sort of Constitutional Learning: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, History, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Scholarship on July 25, 2018 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions not long ago characterized the office of sheriff as a “critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” This plain statement of an incontrovertible fact should not have been controversial. Yet with clockwork predictability, social media activists began excoriating Sessions for his ethnocentrism.

Even those who should have known better—Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.), the NAACP, college-educated personalities in the Twittersphere—piled on the criticism, accusing Sessions of racism and suggesting the term “Anglo-American” was a dog whistle for white nationalists and the alt-Right. It was another sign of how uninformed many in our society have become, and of how name-calling and crude labeling have replaced constructive dialogue and civil conversation in the political sphere.

Fortunately, there’s a good, levelheaded primer for understanding the basic framework of American government that teachers and other leaders should recommend and assign to our ignorant masses: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, which the Liberty Fund published in 2000.

McClellan, who passed away in 2005, was a proud Virginian who taught at several universities, including the University of Virginia, and was, among other things, the James Bryce Visiting Fellow in American Studies at the Institute of United States Studies (University of London) and president of the Center for Judicial Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. He was also for a time a senior resident scholar at Liberty Fund.

Liberty, Order, and Justice is McClellan’s best known work. It maps the history and philosophy that shaped the U.S. Constitution and its amendments and is separated into seven parts, each appended with primary sources that are reproduced in full or in part: Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the Northwest Ordinance, and many others.

As a straightforward overview of the seminal concepts that characterize American government—separation of powers, republicanism, federalism, checks and balances, rule of law—this volume could serve, and probably has served, as the principal textbook for a high school or college course. The “Suggested Reading” lists at the end of each of its sections provide more than enough supplemental material to round out a semester of comprehensive study.

A work of such breadth and scope is impossible to summarize. McClellan begins with British history, in particular the emergence of Parliament, the evolution of the common law, and the development of legal doctrines and principles that responded to changing circumstances. He discusses the differences between the French and American Revolutions, and their respective effects upon the imaginations of Americans who were alive at the time. He devotes an entire section to the Philadelphia Convention, which he says, perhaps overstating, was “often more like a gathering of polite friends than an assemblage of angry political zealots.”

McClellan’s chief concern is federalism, a principle that appears throughout. He highlights disagreements between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, warning that “we should not presume that the Anti-Federalists were wrong.” He adds: “The inquiring student, having examined the debates thoroughly and objectively, may well conclude that the Anti-Federalists were right about certain matters.”

Lest his readers get lost in the historical and conceptual details, McClellan prefaces each section with the heading “Points to Remember,” followed by numbered outlines of central facts and themes. This feature enables easy memorization and study—another reason the book is suited for the classroom. 

For the most part, McClellan recounts historical events dispassionately, and lays out influential concepts with no personal pique or ideological bent. Only occasionally is he tendentious, and then only subtly so. For instance, his judicial hermeneutics seek out authorial intent, thereby rejecting textualism and signing on to a now passé version of originalism. “The basic interpretive task,” he submits, “is to determine the intent of the Constitution, laws, and treatises, and to construe all instruments according to the sense of the terms and the intentions of the parties.”

This statement might have made Justice Antonin Scalia unhappy.

He’s also skeptical of natural law, stating:

It may well be that we are all governed by a higher, unwritten natural law, emanating from God; that certain rights are by nature indelibly impressed upon the hearts and minds of all mankind; and that the spirit of ’76 is incorporated into our fundamental law. The problem is that these concepts, whatever their merit and value, are not provided for in the Constitution, and there is no evidence that the Framers ever intended them to be.

This statement would have made Justice Scalia happy.

McClellan calls Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England a “great compendium of learning,” a term of endearment that applies equally to Liberty, Order, and Justice. The two have a similar aim: to synthesize disparate principles into a coherent treatise and to explain the origins and foundations of the current legal and political order. In a different age, when information wasn’t immediately available and students couldn’t google their way to quick answers, this book might well have become as important as the Commentaries.

Its cheerful conclusion, at any rate, seems naïve in our present moment: “What we have offered you in this book is the basic structure of America’s constitutional order. It is up to you to preserve and improve that structure; and you have a lifetime in which to work at it.” Were he alive today, McClellan might not be so optimistic.

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Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

Holmes and the Pragmatic Common Law

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, The Supreme Court on May 7, 2014 at 8:45 am

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No summary could do justice to the wealth of literature about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s relationship to C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, but a few points of commonality are worth mentioning. First, Holmes was akin to Peirce in the embrace of fallibilism and the scientific method. Holmes disliked natural law thinkers because they purported to know the truth about the law by way of reason or moral teaching. In contrast, Holmes believed that the common law gradually filtered out the most workable, although not necessarily the most moral, theories; in fact, he felt that it was not the province, expertise, or training of the judge to explore issues of morality. He also believed that truth was best determined by a community of inquiring minds rather than by a judge ruling in isolation or by a justice with only eight colleagues to help work through his or her analysis. Therefore, he adhered to the doctrine of judicial restraint and deferred to statutes enacted by legislatures, which consisted of representatives elected by and accountable to the people.

Second, his notion of truth was like James’s: fluid but ultimately associated with the conglomerate views of a majority that have been tested and corroborated by concrete evidence. Holmes did not share James’s optimism, but he did share his literary sparkle. He also shared James’s meliorism and pluralism. The Common Law is a testament to the melioristic nature of the common law system. Holmes’s judicial restraint and deference to local legislatures, moreover, attest to his recognition of diverse local communities and associations that enable social cooperation and legal growth.

Third, Holmes’s celebration of the instrumentalism of the common law smacks of Dewey’s instrumentalism and its Darwinian complements. Like Dewey, Holmes moved pragmatism away from the science, logic, and mathematics that intrigued Peirce, away from the moral psychology and religious vibrancy that intrigued James, and towards the social and political considerations that intrigued Dewey. Holmes and Dewey were, to some degree, consequentialists; they cannot be made out as pure utilitarians—far from it—but their analyses do tend to focus on the importance of outcomes to the evaluation of human action. Finally, Holmes and Dewey emphasized the value of experiment and were majoritarian in that they maintained faith in the ability of distinct communities to arrive at unique solutions to pressing social issues and to memorialize those solutions in official legislation.

These three pragmatist influences enabled Holmes to create a theory of the common law unique to him that both accounted for and distanced itself from the legal positivism of John Austin and Hobbes, who traditionally have been thought of as adversaries of common law theory.

Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and the Case of Howell v. Netherland

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Slavery, Southern History, Thomas Jefferson on April 23, 2014 at 8:45 am

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Howell v. Netherland was a Virginia case about the child of an interracial sexual union. Decided in April 1770, Howell opens with the account of the plaintiff’s grandmother, “a mulatto, begotten on a white woman by a negro man, after the year 1705, and bound by the churchwardens, under the law of that date, to serve to the age of thirty-one.”[1] The plaintiff, Howell, sued Netherland for his freedom. Netherland had purchased Howell from a previous owner, who had also owned Howell’s mother and grandfather.

A twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson served as Howell’s attorney. He argued inter alia that Howell’s grandmother was white, but more importantly that “under the law of nature, all men are born free.”[2] This position makes Howell a precursor to the landmark Somerset case in 1772.[3] “This is what is called personal liberty,” Jefferson says of freedom under the law of nature, “and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.”[4] Jefferson adds that “every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.”[5] Such language, coming six years before the Declaration of Independence and eleven years before the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia, is striking for its seeming emphasis on equality under the natural law.

Jefferson’s opposing counsel in this case was George Wythe, the man who had trained Jefferson in legal practice and who arguably did more during his lifetime than Jefferson to oppose the institution of slavery. In this case, however, Wythe remains the steadfast defender of a slave owner. This fact should remind us of the contingencies of lawyering and the conditions and qualifications that attach to any line of reasoning or rhetoric appearing in court documents about slavery.

When we review archives from the era of slavery in America, we must remember that a lawyer’s words cannot be taken as representative of his thoughts or worldview: he is a participant in a legal contest and advocating for the interests of his client. What Jefferson or Wythe thought about slavery cannot be deduced from this case, so attempts at such deduction should not be made.

[1] Howell v. Netherland, Jefferson 90, April 1770, available in Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Vol. 1 (New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968) at 90-91.

[2] Ibid., my italics.

[3] William G. Merkel, “Jefferson’s Failed Anti-Slavery Proviso of 1784 and the Nascence of Free Soil Constitutionalism,” 38 Seton Hall L. Rev. 555 (2008) at 559.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

The American Founders and Natural Law Jurisprudence

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, Christianity, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Literature, Philosophy, Slavery, Southern History, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 9, 2014 at 8:45 am

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The American founders, many of them, validated their political cause and secession from Britain by resorting to natural law theories and paradigms.[i] Thomas Jefferson memorialized these theories and paradigms in the Declaration of Independence.[ii] While studying nature and the physical world, Jefferson extended natural law jurisprudence while revising it to fit the needs and settings of the New World.[iii] Rather than looking to divine or moral prescription to ground his natural law theories, Jefferson looked to nature. He borrowed from Newtonian ideas about the laws of the universe and applied them to the laws of man.[iv] A human law was, by this logic, akin to the law of gravity.

The American insistence on natural law was a reaction to the analytical positivism gaining credence in Britain.[v] This school of jurisprudence found its fullest expression in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. These men treated laws as linguistic constructs: commands that attained the status of law because people followed them, not because they reflected a priori or transcendent rules of the cosmos. American founders such as Jefferson saw natural law as a way to distinguish themselves from their British counterparts and to define what it meant to be American. William Blackstone, one of the few British jurists still clinging to natural law principles,[vi] enjoyed vast success from American purchases of Commentaries on the Laws of England.[vii] The popularity of this treatise in America had to do with Blackstone’s support for ideals that, from the colonials’ perspective, affirmed Revolutionary rhetoric and philosophical principles.[viii] Blackstone died in 1780. His death ushered in the age of positive law jurisprudence in England.[ix]

In America, however, natural law picked up momentum in the wake of the Revolution and American independence.[x] That ideas of natural law flourished during the Enlightenment, especially in America where institutions were supposed to reflect—indeed embody—Enlightenment principles, is curious because the Enlightenment glorified reason and humanism: progressive concepts seemingly incongruous with a moral theory derived from ancient church teachings and philosophical orthodoxies. This disjuncture reveals the extent to which colonials sought to divorce their culture and communities from the British. Á la Blackstone, colonials would go great lengths to “prove” their natural law theories through application of the scientific method and appeals to reason.[xi] Natural law jurisprudence did, in fact, fit within a scientific and rational framework in many important respects. For instance, natural law, like laws of the natural world putatively discoverable by reason, logic, and experiment, were by definition universal. Just as truths about the external world allegedly were deduced through sustained study of specimens and species, so truths about the human condition were, natural theorists argued, deduced through sustained study of human behavior and the history of the races.[xii] In this sense, colonial jurists viewed natural law not as retrograde, superstitious, or religious, but as cutting-edge and scientific. Americans were not alone in their attention to the scientific elements of law. In Western and Central Europe during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, rulers and leaders “sought to rationalize their legal systems, to make law scientific, to extend it in a vernacular language evenly over their territories, and to put an end to the earlier jumble of customs, privileges, and local rights.”[xiii] Save for Blackstone’s efforts, however, this scientific trend did not gain much traction in England.[xiv]

Early Americans, particularly northerners[xv] but also Virginians such as Jefferson and George Mason, celebrated the ideals of natural law and natural rights appearing in the Declaration, but they found those ideals difficult to implement in everyday practice. Although staunchly committed to the principles of natural law, the colonials, at least those with representation or voice in the political sphere, discovered that abstract philosophy did not readily translate into workaday rules and regulations.[xvi] “It was one thing,” submits David Brion Davis, “to state abstract propositions, and quite another to decide how the law applied to a particular case.”[xvii] Above all, the “peculiar institution” of American slavery called into question the Enlightenment values upon which American natural law jurisprudence depended. Cries of freedom and liberty rang hollow once Americans were no longer up against an oppressive British Empire. These cries began to sound hypocritical—if they did not seem so already—as the institution of slavery became a mainstay of the economy of the fledgling nation.[xviii] How could colonists extol freedom, liberty, and equality yet enslave masses of people? This American philosophical “inconsistency pinched harder when slaves began to speak the language of natural rights.”[xix] As Samuel Johnson, the eminent British Tory and man of letters, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”[xx]

 

NOTES

[i] “The American Revolution, as it ran its course from 1764 to 1776—from the first beginnings of resistance down to the Declaration of Independence and the creation of new colonial constitutions—was inspired by the doctrines of Natural Law.” Ernest Baker, in Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500-1800, ed. Otto Gierke (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1934) at I, xlvi. See generally Clarence Manion, “The Natural Law Philosophy of the Founding Fathers,” University of Notre Dame Natural Law Institute Proceedings (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1949). See also Raymond Whiting, “The American Interpretation of Natural Law,” A Natural Right to Die: Twenty-Three Centuries of Debate (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002) 109-118.

[ii] “[T]he argument of the Declaration is a subtle, if ambiguous, blending of empirical historical analysis and the metaphysics of Natural Law. To prove its central contention—that the revolution was made necessary by British policies—the document enumerates twenty-seven specific events in recent history which reveal precisely how Britain acted to establish despotism. […] But the revolutionaries meant to transcend arguments of expediency, for such arguments were always subject to the vicissitudes of opinion and opinion might lead one to conclude that a revolution was in fact unnecessary and therefore unjustifiable. To remove their claims from the arena of opinion and to ground them with certainty, the revolutionaries felt constrained to found the argument for justification on the principle of Natural Rights which was rooted in the theory of Natural Law as applied to politics and society. Thus the grievances enumerated in the Declaration, weighty in themselves for some readers, were for others concrete examples of how one nation attempted to subordinate another to an ‘absolute despotism.’ The grievances, taken together, demonstrated that British policies had violated the fundamental principles of Natural Law itself.” Lester H. Cohen, “The American Revolution and Natural Law Theory,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1978) at 491-92.

[iii] See generally Allen Mendenhall, “Jefferson’s ‘Laws of Nature’: Newtonian Influence and the Dual Valence of Jurisprudence and Science,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2010).

[iv] See generally Mendenhall, “Jefferson’s Laws of Nature.”

[v] See generally David Lieberman, “Mapping criminal law: Blackstone and the categories of English jurisprudence,” in Law, Crime and English Society, 1660-1830, ed. Norma Landau(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002 ) at 159-162. See also David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 343-385. Davis explains this English phenomenon as follows: “In England there was no ‘fundamental shift in values’ that mobilized the society into revolution. There was no counterpart to the American need for self-justification. No new hopes or obligations arose from an attempt to build a virtuous republic. Such phrases as ‘created equal,’ ‘inalienable rights,’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’—all of which appeared in classic liberal texts—were qualified by a reverent constitutionalism that looked to Saxon precedent to legitimize ideals of freedom. The notion of man’s inherent rights, when assimilated to the historical concept of British ‘liberty,’ implied little challenge to traditional laws and authorities. And by the 1790s the very idea of inherent rights was giving way to radical and conservative forms Utilitarianism.” Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution at 343.

[vi] In short, Blackstone believed that the common law reflected natural law principles and that any law contradicting natural law was invalid. Consider, e.g., the following quotation: “This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding all over the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original. […] Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.” Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I at 41-42.

[vii] See Russell Kirk, America’s British Culture (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1993) 36-40.

[viii] See Albert W. Alschuler, “Rediscovering Blackstone,” 145 University of Pennsylvania L. Rev. (1996) at 4-19. See also David Schultz, “Political Theory and Legal History: Conflicting Depictions of Property in the American Political Founding,” 37 American Journal of Legal History (1993) at 483-486.

[ix] The jurisprudential split between Blackstone and Bentham, while stark, was not as hostile as some first considered: “Until recently Bentham’s claim to have made a sharp break with Blackstone has won wide acceptance, and that fact, combined with Bentham’s ascendancy, was chiefly responsible for consigning Blackstone to obscurity. […] No doubt this outcome resulted in part from Bentham’s mastery of invective, and in part from the fact that the elderly Blackstone did not deign to notice the attacks of an upstart critic, much less reply to them. Even the strongest partisans of Bentham have conceded that much of his criticism directed at Blackstone was misplaced[…]. In spite of Bentham’s efforts, most historians of the relationship have acknowledged that Bentham, despite his implacable hostility, combined relentless criticism with passages of praise that became as famous as some of his barbs.” Richard A. Cosgrove, Scholars of the Law: English Jurisprudence from Blackstone to Hart (New York University Press, 1996) at 52.

[x] See generally George W. Casey, “Natural Rights, Equality, and the Declaration of Independence,” 3 Ave Maria Law Review 45 (2005). See also Philip A. Hamburger, “Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions,” 102 Yale Law Journal 907 (1993). See also James Lanshe, “Morality and the Rule of Law in American Jurisprudence,” 11 Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion 1 (2009) at 11-15. See also Kevin F. Ryan, “We Hold These Truths,” 31-WTR Vermont Bar Journal 9 (2005-06) at 11-16.

[xi] “[Blackstone] presented law as a science, a ‘rational science,’ that included an extensive discussion of natural law. To Blackstone, the principles of natural law are universal and superior to positive law, including the common law. […] Natural law, according to Blackstone, is either revealed by God or discoverable through human reason. […] American jurisprudents readily accepted Blackstone’s natural law orientation. […] [N]atural law provided a convenient and useful justification for the adoption of English common law in the various states of the burgeoning nation. Especially in the decades following soon after the Revolutionary War, if the common law had been understood merely as an English institution distinctive to Britain itself, then an American reliance on the common law would have seemed impolitic or even treasonous. If, however, the common law arose from universal principles of the law of nature, which were revealed by God or discovered through human reason, then the common law would be legitimate everywhere, including in America.” Stephen M. Feldman, “From Premodern to Modern American Jurisprudence: The Onset of Positivism,” 50 Vanderbilt Law Review 1387 (1997) at 1396-97.

[xii] Thomas R. R. Cobb, a jurist from Georgia and an expert on slave laws, took pains to show how science validated the idea of slaves as naturally inferior and in need of white supervision. Consider this quote by Cobb: “The history of the negro race then confirms the conclusion to which an inquiry into the negro character had brought us: that a state of bondage, so far from doing violence to the law of his nature, develops and perfects it; and that, in that state, he enjoys the greatest amount of happiness, and arrives at the greatest degree of perfection of which his nature is capable. And, consequently, that negro slaver, as it exists in the United States, is not contrary to the law of nature.” Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America (Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., 1858) at 51.

[xiii] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) at 403.

[xiv] Ibid. at 403-404.

[xv] “Southerners considered themselves law-abiding and considered northerners lawless. After all, southerners did not assert higher-law doctrines and broad interpretations of the Constitution. Rather, as Charles S. Sydnor has argued, they understood the law in a much different way and professed to see no contradiction between their code of honor, with its appeal to extralegal personal force, and a respect for the law itself.” Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974) at 44.

[xvi] See Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) at 405-408.

[xvii] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 470.

[xviii] See generally David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966) at 3-28. For a synthesis of the historical scholarship on this point, see Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993) at 63-92.

[xix] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 276.

[xx] See James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (New York: George Dearborn, 1833) at 132.

A Reminder from Augustine: Sin and the Law

In Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on November 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

We do well to remember the consequences visited upon Augustine when, as a teenager, he succumbed to sin and shook a person’s pear tree in order to steal the fallen pears—not because he was hungry or in need, but because he delighted in the sin.  “To shake and rob,” he said, “some of us wanton young fellows went, late one night (having, according to our disgraceful habit, prolonged our games in the streets until then), and carried away great loads, not to eat ourselves, but to fling to the very swine, having only eaten some of them; and to do this pleased us all the more because it was not permitted.”[1]

The mature Augustine, looking back on this event, acknowledged that theft violates and is punished by law—not just human law, he adds, pursuant to the teachings of Jesus, but the law written on men’s hearts.  He relates that he suffered (and suffers) from shame and regret as a result of this sin, and his shame or regret is punishment that humans cannot implement ourselves; it is punishment that we must rely on God to summon forth in our hearts and minds.  “It is foul,” Augustine says of his sin, adding, “I hate to reflect on it.  I hate to look on it.”[2]  One wonders whether human punishment based on human law can ever have the same long-lasting effect as divine punishment for violating the law written on human hearts.

Augustine does suggest that there is a law of man and a law of God and that he violated both; the consequences for violating man’s law would have been different from the consequences of violating God’s law, especially insofar as his punishment may not be of this world, although the Christian believer in the triune God must acknowledge that God’s sovereignty and sovereign law precede and have jurisdiction over all men’s actions, for God does not let anything come to pass that he does not know about or have control over.


[1] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, edited by J. G. Pilkington (New York: Horace Liveright, 1927), p. 33.

[2] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, edited by J. G. Pilkington (New York: Horace Liveright, 1927), p. 40.

Plato and Natural Law Theory

In Arts & Letters, Communism, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Natural law theory, at its essence, is not far removed, conceptually at least, from Plato’s theory of forms.  According to Plato, only the philosopher kings are equipped and trained intellectually to comprehend the true forms as opposed to the sensible forms that are readily understandable in the phenomenal world.  These philosopher kings can grasp the Form of the Good, for instance, which is the fountainhead from which flow all true forms, including knowledge, truth, and beauty.  But how are we to know who these philosopher kings are?  How are we to distinguish them from charlatans?  And why should the polis uncritically accept the supposedly sound judgments and determinations of those who cannot prove to us their purportedly superior faculties?

There is no ideal city, no Platonic Utopia, nor even a realm approaching the character of Magnesia.  Plato’s communistic fantasies have never been achieved,[1] and the disenchantment one senses in The Laws differs markedly from the tone and confidence exuded in The Republic. It is as if Plato, having aged, realized the dreaminess of his younger vision in The Republic and wished to correct the record, even though he did not go far enough.  At least in The Laws he acknowledged that the first principle of politics is to attain peace; the absence of military conflict ought to be the chief aim of the legislator; judges are another matter.

Plato seems to have continued to admire tyranny, despite his criticism of tyrants in The Laws, for elsewhere in that work he discusses how leaders ought to create an obedient disposition among the citizens.  Commonplace though that proposition may sound, it suggests that the State and its politicians should condition citizens to act for the good of the State.  The problem is that the State is made up of those who live off the citizens, so unchecked obedience to the State means that the citizens ensure their perpetual subordination to those who exploit citizen labor.  It is little wonder that the Platonic State devotes itself to educating the young, for the State must guarantee that there are future generations of uncritical followers to take advantage of.

This is not to suggest that Plato’s works are without truth, only that they are underdeveloped and often misguided.  Aristotle seems to have thought so, too.  The free polis is a multifaceted collection of networks bound together by the voluntary acts of free agents whose rules of habit and exchange exist separately from legislative fiat.


[1] Aristotle himself recognizes that Plato lacks a proper understanding of unity because Plato treats it in terms of property ownership because it is contracted by experience.  “[A]though there is a sense in which property ought to be common,” says Aristotle, “it should in general be private.  When everyone has his own separate sphere of interest, there will not be the same ground for quarrels; and they will make more effort, because each man will feel that he is applying himself to what is his own.” Aristotle, The Politics (Translated by Ernest Barker; Revised with an Introduction by R. F. Stanley). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 47.

Anamnesis Journal and Debates Over the New Natural Law

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, News and Current Events, News Release, Politics, Religion, Rhetoric, Western Civilization on August 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Over at the web-essay section of Anamnesis: A Journal for the Study of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine,’ Professors R. J. Snell and Thaddeus J. Kozinski have weighed in on debates over the New Natural Law theory.

Here is Snell’s thesis:

Despite differences in particular religious commitments, a significant number of theists share reservations about the natural law. Natural law theory overlooks the Fall, arrogates the domain of revelation, attempts obligation without divine command, and treats God in the generic and thus in terms alien to the believer—just some of the many objections.In this short essay I offer a broad defense against these charges, particularly claiming that understanding natural law through human subjectivity recognizes how humans actually know and so consequently preserves the uniqueness and transcendence of God.

Appealing to authorities within the religious tradition may go some distance in answering objections, for theology and sacred text tends to vindicate the natural lawyers, especially if the religion has a doctrine of creation. But the charges may have particular traction against the so-called New Natural Law Theory (NNL), with its first-person perspective. As Christopher O. Tollefsen explains, the NNL takes seriously “considerations concerning the nature of human action,” particularly intentions as “agent-centered, or first-personal … from the point of view of the agent as seeking some good.” It is, he continues, “only by adopting the perspective of the acting person that an agent’s action can be best understood.”

Here is Kozinski’s thesis:

I commend R.J. Snell for his excellent essay “God, Religion, and the New Natural Law.” His thesis: “understanding natural law through human subjectivity recognizes how humans actually know and so consequently preserves the uniqueness and transcendence of God” is defended rigorously, and is, to my mind, true. However, in allying his argument with those of the New Natural Law school, I think he does himself a disservice.There is nothing in his thesis in terms of data, premises, argumentation, and conclusions that requires such an alliance, for everything he claims about the indispensable role and even primacy of subjectivity, experience, understanding, and judgment in ethical inquiry and practice rings true on its own and is clearly in accordance with the philosophia perennis in general and Thomistic ethical philosophy in particular. Whereas, the major claim of the New Natural Theory, that is, the adequacy of practical reason alone to ground and explain ethical theory and practice, does not ring true and is in, at least prima facie, contradiction with traditional Catholic and Thomistic moral philosophy and theology.

Though I agree with Dr. Snell that the modern and postmodern “turn to the subject” is the most appropriate beginning to inquiry about the natural law, and maybe the most effective motivation for obeying it, in our present public milieu of deep worldview pluralism, it is only a beginning. Moreover, even a sound, systematic Thomistic defense of the relative self-sufficiency of practical reason for knowing and living out the natural law can be misleading if it neglects to include a discussion of these four realities:  1) the mutually dependent relation of speculative and practical reason; 2) the subjectivity-shaping role of social practices; 3) the tradition-constituted-and-constitutive character of practical rationality; and 4) the indispensability of divine revelation in ethical inquiry and practice.

These essays are good introductions to the New Natural Law Theory.  For more about this branch of jurisprudence, see the following web-based essays and articles (some of them approving of natural law and some of them critical):

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.  “On the New Natural Law Theory.”  Modern Age (2000: 415-418).

Phillip E. Johnson.  “In Defense of Natural Law.”  First Things (1999).

Christopher Tollefsen.  “The New Natural Law Theory.”  LYCEUM, Vol. X, No. 1 (2008).

David Gordon’s review of Robert P. George’s In Defense of Natural Law.  Review title: “New But Not Improved.”  The Mises Review.  Vol. 5, No. 4 (1999).

Larry Arnhart.  “Darwinian Conservatism as the New Natural Law.”  The Good Society, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2003).

The Daily Dish.  “The ‘New’ Natural Law.”  The Atlantic (Dec. 23, 2009).

David D. Kirkpatrick.  “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.”  The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 16, 2009).

“The Gospel of Life: A Symposium.”  First Things (1995). 

This list is hardly exhaustive.  It shows only a few scholarly and popular pieces.  No discussion of natural law theory should fail to mention John Finnis and Robert P. George, whose books and articles are well-known and oft-discussed.  Anamnesis, edited by Peter Haworth, is sure to come out with more compelling pieces related to topics discussed here at The Literary Lawyer.  Please read Anamnesis and, if you feel so inclined, leave a comment in the “comments” section of the web-based fora.

Conservatives and the Natural Law vs. Positive Law Debate

In American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Politics on July 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Three days ago, the Claremont Review of Books posted two interesting reviews on jurisprudence.   The first, “Natural Law Man,” is a reprint of a piece that appeared in the Winter/Spring 2010-11 issue.   Here, Michael M. Uhlmann praises Hadley Arkes’s Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.  In the second review, “A Plea for Positivism,” Bradley C. S. Watson comments on Gary L. McDowell’s The Language of Law and the Foundations of American Constitutionalism.  (Click here to read McDowell’s discussion of the book with Edwin Meese, III.)  Both reviews situate their subjects alongside conservative theory.  Both books are worth reading. 

The prevailing tendency among some uncritical commentators is to binarize natural law theory and positive law theory as polar opposites.  That’s understandable if the terms “natural law” and “positive law” are reduced to cliché.  But cliché, although helpful to students first getting introduced to concepts, doesn’t do justice to the complexities and challenges of natural law or positive law jurisprudence.  In any event, it is curious that both natural law theorists and positive law theorists claim to have influenced, and to have been influenced by, conservatism.  That fact alone suggests that natural law theory and positive law theory are complicated.  Here are some readings that will complicate the complicated:  Murray Rothbard’s excerpts “Introduction to Natural Law” and “Natural Law versus Positive Law,” F. Russell Hittinger’s short pieces “Natural Law” and “The Rule of Law and Law of Nature,” Robert P. George’s “Witherspoon Lecture,” and Fred Hutchison’s overview “Natural Law and Conservatism.”

Jefferson’s Laws of Nature

In Arts & Letters, Jurisprudence, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Politics, Thomas Jefferson on June 29, 2010 at 10:24 pm

My article on Jefferson is going to print this month.  Titled “‘Jefferson’s Laws of Nature’: Newtonian Influence and the Dual Valence of Jurisprudence and Science,” the article will appear in The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2010).  View the SSRN page here.

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