Interview: Saul Cornell and the Originalism Debate

cornell.imgSaul Cornell is a legal and constitutional historian at Fordham University, and the author of The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America (1999) and A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (2006). As an active participant in public debate over gun regulation, as well as the scholarly debate over constitutional interpretation, Cornell is a historian who does not fear to tread in dangerous political territory. Today for The Junto, he explains originalism’s complex impact, and its strange relationship to the past. Continue reading

The JuntoCast, Episode 5: The Constitution

The JuntoCastThe Junto is happy to present the fifth episode of “The JuntoCast,” a monthly podcast in which members of The Junto discuss issues of both academic and general interest related to early American history, pedagogy, and public history. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHIt’s not every Sunday that we get to begin this recap with a genuinely fresh proslavery argument. But this week the International Herald Tribune ran a brief column by Humayan Dar, a self-described “Islamic economist” with a PhD from Cambridge.  Under the headline, “Modern slavery: how bad is bonded labour,” the essay decried “the negative perception of slavery and bonded labour,” and suggested that a legal forced-labor regime in Pakistan would “work for the mutual benefit of the parties, the employer and the worker and their families.”

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The Week in Early American History

TWEAHIt’s hard to believe that the end of June is already upon us. This week features one of the biggest events of the Civil War sesquicentennial with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Look for more on that event (both 150 years ago and today) in next week’s edition. Meanwhile, on to this week’s links!

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Alexander Hamilton’s Originalism

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We should read each legal document according to the plain sense of the text: the sense that was understood by its authors, or perhaps by the people by whose authority it became law. The task of interpretation is, in essence, a historical one. It should be concerned with past realities, not present conjectures. That is as compelling a definition of originalism as I can muster.

I’m not going to get into originalism deeply here. I just wanted to share a few lines from the pen of Alexander Hamilton. There’s a point where the argument for originalism folds in upon itself logically: the point where originalist historians and lawyers want to show that the authors or ratifiers of the original text intended or understood it to be interpreted according to its original intent or meaning. Originalist historiography then becomes a historiography of originalism itself. Lawyers, in my small experience, tend to like this, because they like doing the history of other lawyers. Continue reading