Liberal Originalism: A Past for the Future

By Sandefur, Timothy | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Liberal Originalism: A Past for the Future


Sandefur, Timothy, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


First comes the Declaration of Independence, the illuminated initial letter of our history.... Here is the national heart, the national soul, the national will, the national voice, which must inspire our interpretation of the Constitution, and enter into and diffuse itself through all the national legislation.

--Charles Sumner (1)

I.   INTRODUCTION                                            490
II.  LIBERAL VS. CONSERVATIVE ORIGINALISM                    491
III. SLAVERY AND THE PROBLEMS OF RACE                        497
IV.  LIBERAL ORIGINALISM AND CONSERVATISM
     IN GENERAL                                              507
V.   ARGUMENTS AGAINST LIBERAL
     ORIGINALISM                                             510
A.   Liberal Originalism Overemphasizes Locke                511
B.   The Founders Did Not Really Mean It                     513
C.   The Founders Did Not Understand Evolution               515
D.   The Framers Didn't Intend for It to Be
     Relevant                                                518
VI. WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?                            520
A.  Civil Rights                                             520
B.  Sexual Freedom and Public Morality                       522
C.  Economic Equality                                        532
D.  Federalism                                               538

VII. CONCLUSION                                              541

I. INTRODUCTION

What role ought the Declaration of Independence play in interpreting the Constitution? Average Americans would probably be surprised that the subject has received relatively little scholarly attention. But in recent years, some writers, led particularly by Scott Douglas Gerber, have begun to devote serious consideration to the Declaration's constitutional role. These scholars are developing a theory of interpretation that Gerber calls "liberal originalism." (2) According to this view, the Declaration is part of the organic law of the United States, and ought to guide our understanding of the Constitution. (3) Liberal originalism contrasts with the "conservative originalism" of Robert Bork, (4) Chief Justice William Rehnquist, (5) and Justice Antonin Scalia, (6) who view the Declaration as a world apart from the Constitution.

Liberal originalism is relevant to a historical analysis of the Constitution because it illuminates the issue of slavery in America's founding. But it is also relevant today as a method of interpreting the Constitution. Like originalism in general, the liberal originalist view is incompatible with attempts to use government to accomplish "social justice" or other ends inconsistent with the principles of individual liberty and limited government reflected in the Declaration. This article addresses the merits of liberal originalism and the differences that this method would make if adopted by today's courts. I take the recent book The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact ("Origins and Impact"), (7) edited by Gerber, as a point of departure. In it, Gerber brings together twelve essays on the Declaration, each written by a different historian or constitutional scholar. The essays range in scope from the history of the Declaration's writing and reception in 1776 to its impact on modern Presidents and the Supreme Court. To this, Origins and Impact adds a variety of primary sources, including the first drafts of the Declaration, passages from the constitutional ratification debates and the Federalist Papers, speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, and even a list of all Supreme Court cases that have cited the Declaration. In the following, I offer some reflections on the liberal originalist project in general, in hopes that it will help us not only to know "where we are, and whither we are tending," but also to better judge "what to do and how to do it. (8)

II. …

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