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Method and Dialogue in History and Originalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2019


There is a sharp separation between the scholarly literature of originalists and professional historians. Originalists cite one another, but regularly ignore recent work by historians. Historians are generally happy to return the favor. Engagement between the two communities is too often limited to methodological disputes and amicus briefs. As a result, historical inquiry offers less to constitutional law than it might, and constitutional lawyers offer less to history than they could. Some of this separation is due to unavoidable methodological tension, but those tensions have not always frustrated productive dialogue. Originalism, in fact, emerged as an important theory of constitutional interpretation because of developments in professional historiography. Post-Revisionist approaches to the historiography of Reconstruction inspired and legitimated the book that set originalism on its current trajectory: Raoul Berger's Government by Judiciary. The revolution in the historiography of the founding embodied in Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic offered originalists other opportunities. It was not methodological disagreements but technological, institutional, and disciplinary developments since the 1980s that separated history and originalism. Those trends have mostly accelerated in the twenty-first century, but the role historians played in creating originalism suggests opportunities for productive dialogue still exist and should be pursued.

Invited Article
Copyright © the American Society for Legal History, Inc. 2019 

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The author thanks Nathan Chapman, Saul Cornell, Cynthia Nicoletti, Peter Onuf, Laura Phillips Sawyer, and Matthew Steilen for critiques that significantly improved this article. The author also thanks Jonathan Gienapp, Bernadette Meyler, and Matthew Steilen for the opportunity to present a version of this article at the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History.


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