Historian Saul Cornell on Originalism and the Impeachment Process

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Fordham University historian Saul Cornell asks, “How should the Constitution’s provisions on impeachment be interpreted?”  I am glad to see a historian weighing-in here.

Here is a taste of Cornell’s piece at The New Republic:

Another problem with originalism’s approach to history is its static (which is to say, decidedly ahistorical) view of the past. American legal and constitutional history did not pause in freeze-frame when the Constitution was ratified in 1789. And constitutional meaning has likewise not remained frozen over the course of American history, a point that the Founding generation well understood. Even James Madison came to recognize that constitutional meaning would evolve, both through the decision of the courts and through actions taken by the people themselves beyond the formal jurisdiction of the courts. In the 1790s, Madison vigorously opposed Alexander Hamilton’s belief that the Constitution allowed the federal government to charter a bank, but by the era of the War of 1812 he had come to realize that such an institution was a necessity—and all branches of the federal government and the American people had also embraced the federally chartered financial system in a host of ways by then.

Finally, in contrast to originalists, liberal legal scholars need to recognize that interpreting the Constitution inevitably requires some form of translation—taking concepts rooted in the realities of the eighteenth century and trying to make sense of them in our own. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of translation to the entire enterprise of constitutional interpretation is to look at a claim made by the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, during that committee’s impeachment inquiry last month. Nunes claimed that Trump’s efforts to use Rudolph Giuliani to conduct a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine were no different from George Washington’s decision to dispatch John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain in the 1790s.

In his flat-footed historical analogy, Nunes suggested that his House Democratic colleagues likely would have impeached Washington for dispatching Jay. Of course, any comparison between Giuliani and Jay is preposterous on multiple levels. Jay was a co-author of The Federalist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and had extensive diplomatic experience, notably stemming from his tenure as the secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation. He was not only one of the most distinguished lawyers of the Founding generation but was one of the most experienced diplomats in the new nation. Moreover, at the time that Washington turned to Jay to negotiate a treaty, there was nothing even remotely resembling the modern State Department. The original State Department consisted of six employees. (By 1824, the department’s staff had more than doubled, to a size of 13.) The geopolitics of the Jay overture were also strikingly different from those of the Ukraine affair: Jay was then negotiating for America from a position of weakness with the most powerful nation on earth. In 2019, America was the most powerful nation on earth, and Ukraine was in a position much weaker than America was at the time of the Jay treaty. Finally, and most importantly, Jay was advancing American interests and acting as an official representative of the American nation; he was not a private actor furthering Washington’s personal interests (and his own).

Moreover, if Nunes had dug deeper, he would have learned that many Americans did demand that Washington face impeachment. (Effigies of Jay were burned in cities across the new nation, a fate that Giuliani has thus far avoided.) Washington rebuffed demands from the House of Representatives that he turn over documents related to Jay’s instruction: Indeed, Washington’s decision laid the groundwork for the idea of executive privilege that the Trump administration has repeatedly asserted over the course of today’s impeachment proceedings. (The concept of executive privilege claims no originalist pedigree to speak of. It appears nowhere in the text of the Constitution and can’t be sanctioned by a strict originalist theory of interpretation.) Yet once he’d asserted this privilege, Washington himself expressly conceded that if Congress requested such materials in the context of an impeachment inquiry, he would have to produce them. Thus, a genuine examination of the relevant history here not only undermines Nunes’s facile analogy, but also sets up the foundation for another impeachable offense. The refusal of the Trump administration to turn over documents critical to the House’s impeachment inquiry is itself an example of a high crime and misdemeanor and hence an impeachable offense.

Read the entire piece here.

Saul Cornell on the “Mythic Second Amendment”

CornellFordham University’s Saul Cornell, the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control, explains the myth that the Second Amendment relates to the history of the American frontier.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Bearing Arms vs. Hunting Bears: The Persistence of a Mythic Second Amendment in Contemporary Constitutional Culture“:

The myth of the frontier is one of the most enduring in American history; it has been commodified and used to market everything from cigarettes to cars, and has been central to firearms sales for more than a century. It is a little shocking that the same myths used to sell cigarettes played a pivotal role in two federal appeals court decisions: Moore v. Madigan and Peruta v. San Diego. Both cases evoked “the familiar image” of an armed “eighteenth-century frontiersman . . . ‘obtain[ing] supplies from the nearest trading post.” Contrary to this mythic view of the American past, the bulk of the nation’s population in the eighteenth century was clustered along the coast, not the frontier. Nor is there any evidence that members of the Founding era such as George Mason or James Madison were thinking about the plight of the tiny percentage of the American people who lived on the frontier when they discussed the right to keep and bear arms in the Virginia Ratification Convention. The debates in the First Congress certainly do not afford much evidence that this was a major concern. Given the realities of American society at this point in the nation’s history, such concerns would have been odd. In 1790, the mean population center of the United States, a standard measure of population distribution, was situated somewhere between Baltimore and Philadelphia, not western Kentucky, northern Maine, or the Ohio valley.

Frontier mythology has shaped another aspect of the current debate over firearms policy and the law. In response to the horrorific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre warned that the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”Setting aside the policy debates and statistics about the utility of armed self-defense, particularly in active-shooter scenarios such as schools, the suggestion that giving a guy a gun turns him into an effective agent of law enforcment, it itself part of a set of myths about regenerative violence dating back to colonial America. The leading historian of this mythology, Richard Slotkin, has charted how this motif has been constantly re-invented in American popular culture over the long arc of American history. David Crockett has morphed into Jason Bourne, and most recently the iconic image of a gun-toting hero is more likely to fight off alien invaders or the hordes of the zombie apocolypse than the marginalized others of earlier mythic tales of violence and redemption.

Read the entire piece at The Panorama.

When a School Shooting Shifted the National Debate on Guns

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Saul Cornell, the best historian on guns and the Second Amendment working today, tells us about an 1853 school shooting in Louisville, Kentucky.  Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

And Cornell’s conclusion:

The Ward shooting, and the popular outcry it generated, reminds us that there’s another possible way to view the hierarchy of American rights—one in which the right not to get shot is on par with, and may even outweigh, the right to freely carry a gun and use it. The notion that the Second Amendment overrides these rights and prohibits sensible gun laws has never been the dominant position in American law. Most Americans in the 18th century and many in the 19th recognized this basic fact as fundamental to our Constitutional tradition. It is surely time to restore those other esteemed American rights to their rightful place in our contemporary constitutional debates over the role of guns in America.

Read the entire piece here.

The Founding Fathers and Gun Laws

CornellI have been waiting for Fordham University historian Saul Cornell to weigh-in on guns and the Second Amendment in the wake of the Parkland shooting.  In this piece at “The Conversation” he suggests “five types of gun laws the Founding Fathers loved.”

They are:

  1. Registration
  2. Public Carry
  3. Stand-your-ground laws
  4. Safe storage laws
  5. Loyalty oaths

See how Cornell develops these thoughts here.

And then go read his A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  Cornell is the National Rifle Association’s worst nightmare.

 

The Real History of the Second Amendment

CornellIn an earlier post I recommended Fordham University historian Saul Cornell‘s book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  It is the best historical account of the Second Amendment that I have read.  I was again reminded of why I admire Cornell’s book when I read his recent piece at The Baffler titled “Gun Anarchy and the Unfree State.”

Here is a taste:

To begin reckoning with this challenge, it’s worth pausing to consider the entire wording of the Second Amendment. Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the amendment does not even mention guns, but instead proclaims, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus, the Second Amendment, in contrast to the First Amendment, contains a preamble; an introductory clause affirming the necessity of a well-regulated militia. This arcane Latinate construction so dear to the Founding generation was an ablative absolute. Translated into modern parlance, the amendment would read something like this: “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Also, note what the aim of a citizen’s militia is: achieving the security of a free state. In other words, the Second Amendment not only ties the right to keep and bear arms to a particular means, but it states a clear purpose. What, then, is entailed in promoting the security of said “free state”? To begin with, we should clearly stipulate that the individual right of self defense—the one closest to the heart of modern Americans—denoted something very different from a free state’s maintenance. Americans esteemed this right, but did not have much to worry about when it came to safeguarding it. Indeed, the right was such a fixture of Anglo-American law that John Adams used it as the basis for his defense of the British troops charged with murdering civilians in the Boston Massacre. An American jury empaneled to hear that case found Adams’s argument entirely persuasive and exonerated six of the eight soldiers.

So a free state’s security was something other than procuring the self-defense of a society’s individual members. It was, rather, a collective enterprise: In the eighteenth century, the security of a free state was accomplished by a well-regulated militia—a local institution, composed of citizen soldiers. And as the wording of the amendment makes plain, that militia was subject to extensive regulation by government. Indeed, militia statutes were typically the longest laws on the books in early America. So the logical question that one ought to ask—one that seldom gets raised in the contentious modern debate over the role of guns in contemporary American society—is this: How do we maintain and promote the security of a free state when we no longer live in small rural communities and depend on well-regulated militias? How can one enjoy liberty in a society awash in guns?

This is, at bottom, a historical question—one that’s largely anathema to the NRA and other advocates of expansive gun rights. Many gun-rights advocates fail to understand the actual historical background of the Second Amendment because our debates over gun ownership typically revolve instead around a potent set of myths that cloud our historical understanding. Chief among these myths is the iconic image of the “good guy with a gun,” eagerly manufactured and marketed by American popular culture. From the dime novels of the nineteenth century to Hollywood westerns and more recent figures such as Jason Bourne, a powerful entertainment folklore has infused the gun-rights narrative.  

Read the entire piece here.