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Second in a Series: The Message of the Farmer Letters

Second in a Series: The Message of the Farmer Letters

This is the second of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

The Farmer letters are best understood when read in conjunction with Dickinson’s 1764 speech and his 1774 Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great-Britain Over the Colonies in America. The latter tract elaborated The Farmer’s comments about government. This discussion, although drawing principally on The Farmer, will mention all three works.

In political philosophy, Dickinson was essentially a Lockean. Government was founded on contract. It was a public trust erected to further human happiness. Necessary to human happiness was satisfaction of man’s social instinct. Any particular government was constitutional and legitimate only so far as its actions furthered human happiness. In his 1764 speech, Dickinson argued that the “liberties” (e.g., privileges) created by English law are “[f]ounded on the acknowledged rights of human nature.” In other words, the “rights of Englishmen” were positive law manifestations of natural rights.

According to Dickinson, immigrants to the colonies had effectively contracted to recognize the executive authority of the Crown and its authority over foreign affairs. Furthermore, by accepting Britain as the mother country and the moderator of the empire, colonists had impliedly agreed that Parliament could regulate trade with foreign nations and among units of the empire.

But Americans had never ceded their right to be taxed only by their consent, given individually or by their representatives: “We cannot be happy without being free,” Dickinson wrote in Farmer Letter XII. “We cannot be free without being secure in our own property … We cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may take it away.”

Parliament, where Americans were unrepresented, had imposed the Townshend duties to raise revenue rather than to restrict or regulate trade. As such, they were taxes: “A ‘TAX’ means an imposition to raise money,” Letter IV proclaimed. The Quartering Act, by which Parliament ordered colonial governments to provide lodging and other support to British troops, also was substantially a tax.

Although the “Farmer” necessarily focused on taxes, he addressed other political questions as well. One was how a free people should respond to governmental usurpation. Citizens should oppose small usurpations immediately to prevent them from acquiring the force of precedent. Letter XII proclaimed, “A perpetual jealousy regarding liberty is absolutely required in all free states … Slavery is ever preceded by sleep.”

However, opposition should proceed cautiously. Letter III contended that citizens must first petition for redress of grievances. Only if petitioning was unsuccessful should citizens proceed to peaceful civil disobedience. Only if both those steps failed, should they employ force.

Dickinson did not believe taxation was the only subject within the exclusive sphere of colonial control. Dickinson cited the court system as another example. Letter XII asserted, “The freedom of a people consists in being governed by laws, in which no alteration can be made, without their consent.” Obviously, this proclamation is not limited to taxes.

In his 1774 essay, Dickinson illustrated by example what he meant by “internal governance.” It included regulation of civil justice, criminal law, manufacturing, religion, the press, and many other activities. His list looks very much like the lists the Constitution’s advocates offered during the ratification debates when they itemized the powers the Constitution reserved exclusively to the states.

Like Dickinson’s later writings, The Farmer revealed an interest in the incentives motivating political officeholders. Letter VII observed that measures not affecting parliamentary constituents directly received less attention in the House of Commons than those of importance to constituents. Parliamentary taxation of the colonies in particular created bad incentives. Letter VIII cited as a principle of good government the maxim, Qui sentit commodum, sentire debet et onus: Who gets the benefit should bear the burden.

The “Farmer” supported his case heavily, both in the text and in footnotes. There were citations to the Bible, to political tracts, to leading classical authors, and to works of ancient and modern history. For example, to illustrate how the true incidence of a tax might fall on a person other than the nominal payer, Letter VII related an episode from the reign of the emperor Nero, drawn from the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.

Incidentally, constitutional originalists may appreciate Dickinson’s preference for relying for on older records as legal authority rather than on recent trends or events. His 1774 essay asserted that it is best to resort to “those ‘dead but most faithful counsellors’ (as Sir Edward Coke calls them) ‘who cannot be daunted by fear, nor muzzled by affection, reward, or hope of preferment, and therefore may safely be believed.’ . . . ” This statement should be read in conjunction with Dickinson’s reason for adhering to the rule of law: “[M]iserable is the servitude when the laws are uncertain.”

Fourth in a Series: John Dickinson’s Contributions to the Constitution

Fourth in a Series: John Dickinson’s Contributions to the Constitution

This is the fourth of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

John Dickinson believed the passions could be the source of evil, but “[d]uly governed, they produce happiness.” Indeed, “[t]he due regulation of the affections [emotions] is the perfection [completion] of man’s character.” One achieved “due regulation” through well-structured societal institutions, including constitutional institutions: “The best foundations of this protection, that can be laid by men, are a constitution and government secured, as well as can be, from the undue influence of passions either in the people or their servants.” (Observe the phrase “undue influence,” a concept common in fiduciary law.)

Dickinson’s 1764 speech to the Pennsylvania assembly showed he understood the difference between constitutions and ordinary legislation. The role of a constitution was to lay down procedures for managing the rights and powers citizens contributed to the central authority: “[A] constitution is the organization of the contributed rights in society.” A good constitution featured mechanisms to maximize human advantages and minimize disadvantages. It encouraged good results and discouraged bad ones—the “cultivation of virtues and correction of errors.”

Dickinson was in Philadelphia for nearly the entire convention, although illness apparently caused him to miss some of the proceedings. Notes taken by James Madison and others, as well as Dickinson’s own notes (not recovered until 1983) reveal a significant impact on the framers’ deliberations.

Dickinson’s views were more centralizing than those of other small state delegates, such as New Jersey’s William Paterson. Yet they were more “federal” than views of nationalists such as Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Dickinson spoke for the “preservation of the States in a certain degree of agency [action],” but was willing to go much farther than those who wished merely to amend the Articles. Thus, he pressed for an enumeration of federal powers two months before the Committee of Detail adopted one. The ultimate federal/state balance was much closer to his ideals than, for example, to the ideals of Madison, the putative “father of the Constitution.”

The list of constitutional provisions impacted by Dickinson is a very long one. Consider the Great Compromise by which Senators were allocated by state and Representatives by population. As Dickinson hinted in his ratification-era Fabius letters, he had promoted a formula of this sort long before the other delegates acceded to it.

Dickinson sponsored the resolution that allocated at least one Representative to each state. In his draft plan for a constitution, he inserted the first rudimentary version of the Necessary and Proper Clause. (It would have authorized Congress to “pass Acts for enforcing” other congressional laws.) Amid debate over whether the Constitution should create a federal judiciary below the Supreme Court, he suggested the compromise whereby Congress received power to decide the issue. Despite misgivings, he made the motion to permit the president to be impeached. An opponent of the slave trade, he eventually helped broker the compromise whereby the trade was left untouched for several years, with power in Congress to abolish it thereafter.

Of course, he did not always get his way. He initially favored allocating members of the House of Representatives by wealth and tax contributions rather than by population. Eventually, he yielded to the convention’s conclusion that population generally was a fair proxy for wealth. The exception to the link between population and wealth was slavery, because of the lower productivity of slaves compared to freemen, white or black. The three-fifths compromise was the convention’s effort to quantify the difference, but Dickinson unsuccessfully opposed it.

Perhaps his most notable contributions pertained to the structure of the Senate. He suggested terms of office both staggered and long—although his initial preference was for seven years rather than six. He proposed that the Senate equally represent the states and that Senators be selected by the state legislatures. He sought to adapt British precedent to American conditions: Just as the House of Lords was necessary to protect the nobility and the royal veto to protect the Crown, the Senate would protect the states. Dickinson could look simultaneously back to the past and forward to the future.

This faculty surfaced again during the debate over the Origination Clause. In British parliamentary practice (adopted in modified form in some of the new state constitutions) all money bills originated in the Commons. The Lords could approve or disapprove them, but could not amend them. In conjunction with Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, Dickinson successfully fought for a requirement that all revenue bills, but not all money bills, arise in the House of Representatives, with the Senate enjoying power to amend.

Some delegates believed limiting revenue origination to the House was irrational, and they buttressed their opposition by reciting difficulties experienced in a few states with origination clauses in their recently-adopted constitutions. Madison in particular launched a convoluted attack against an origination rule.

Dickinson’s response to Madison was his most famous speech of the convention. This is the version reported by Madison himself:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has give a sanction to them. . . . And has not experience verified the utility of restraining money bills to the immediate representatives of the people. Whence the effect may have proceeded he could not say; whether from the respect with which this privilege inspired the other branches of Govt. to the H. of Commons, or from the turn of thinking it gave to the people at large with regard to their rights, but the effect was visible & could not be doubted. Shall we oppose to this long experience, the short experience of 11 years which we had ourselves, on this subject. . . [A]ll the prejudices of the people would be offended by refusing this exclusive privilege to the H. of Repress. and these prejudices shd. never be disregarded by us when no essential purpose was to be served. When this plan goes forth, it will be attacked by the popular leaders. Aristocracy will be the watchword; the Shibboleth among its adversaries. Eight States have inserted in their Constitutions the exclusive right of originating money bills in favor of the popular branch of the Legislature. Most of them however allowed the other branch to amend. This . . . would be proper for us to do.

Here was a statement of Burkean conservatism three years before Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

As sometimes happened during Dickinson’s career, his colleagues rejected his proposal at the time—only to adopt it later.

Fifth (and last) in a Series: John Dickinson and the Ratification of the Constitution

Fifth (and last) in a Series: John Dickinson and the Ratification of the Constitution

This is the last of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

Ill-health motivated John Dickinson to leave the federal convention a day early. Before departing, he instructed his friend and Delaware colleague, George Read, to affix his signature to the document. There are, therefore, 39 signatures to the document but only 38 men physically signed.

In early 1788, Dickinson perceived that ratification momentum was slowing. Accordingly, he composed for publication nine letters written under the pseudonym, “Fabius.” The Letters of Fabius were well-received and widely reprinted.

Unlike The Federalist or the “Aristides” essays of Alexander Contee Hanson, Fabius made no attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the Constitution. The letters focused primarily on answering the Antifederalist contention that the Constitution was too “high-toned,” and that its adoption would lead to aristocracy. If the reader reviews the Dickinson speech reported in my last post, he or she will see that Dickinson had anticipated this objection.

Fabius centered on a two-fold response. First, the rules governing the House, Senate, and president assured popular control. House members would be elected directly to short terms, and one third of Senators would be elected indirectly every two years. The president would be chosen by a method impervious to corruption; and although he enjoyed a veto, it was not absolute. The British had expanded and retained their liberties with far fewer democratic guarantees.

Second, freedom would be preserved by the confederal or federal (the words then were synonymous) nature of the system. In the original social compact, citizens donated certain rights or powers (words also then largely synonymous) to a central authority so as to protect retained rights/powers. Similarly, in a confederation, member states contributed rights/powers to a central authority so as to protect their remaining rights/powers.

But just as citizens are bound to be ever jealous of their rights and to check government accordingly, so also would the states be obligated to protect their reserved powers. “America is, and will be, divided into several sovereign states, each possessing every power proper for governing within its own limits for its own purposes, and also for acting as a member of the union.” Any states that allowed the federal government to interfere in their sovereign jurisdiction would be guilty of a breach of trust, for the “trustees or servants of the several states” were obliged to protect the authority citizens had placed in them. If state officials lose ground to the federal government, Dickinson maintained, “It will be their own faults.”

In addition to pressing his twofold argument, Dickinson made other points. One was the disadvantages of a confederation in which the central government had insufficient power. Dickinson cited both the Articles of Confederation and the fracture of two ancient Greek federations as examples. He also offered a positive case study: the 1707 union of England with Scotland. After reciting dire pre-union Scottish predictions his readers knew proved to be false, Dickinson identified the union’s benefits: the cultivation of virtues and correction of errors; protection for the lower classes; improvements in agriculture, science, arts, trade, and manufactures; the rule of law; peace and security at home, and increased respectability abroad. Amid the enjoyment of these benefits, the Scottish Church and laws, courts and judicature had remained established and secure.

A well-balanced confederation rendered all its members stronger. In modern terms, it reduced state shirking and free riding. Further, as in the human body, “A stroke, a touch upon any part, will be immediately felt by the whole.” A diseased member of the body severed from the rest could not recover, while one remaining connected could be saved.

Confederation was Dickinson’s answer to Montesquieu’s lament that a large territory cannot be governed by republican forms, and that attempting to do so resulted in fragmentation or tyranny. Confederation, said Dickinson, would ensure that government was effective throughout American territory while still checking the urge to centralize. No confederation had ever featured the protections contained in the Constitution. If they proved inadequate, the Constitution provided yet another response: a method for adopting “amendments on the authority of the people.”

* * * *

The author of Fabius was nearing the end of contemporaneous life expectancy, but in the event he was to live another two decades. During that time he maintained a large correspondence, including with Thomas Jefferson, who even as president always answered his letters.

In 1791-92, Dickinson served as president of the Delaware state constitutional convention, and briefly as a state senator thereafter. He wrote several articles and pamphlets, including new Fabius letters arguing for a pro-French foreign policy.

Most of his remaining life, however, was spent in retirement. He died in 1808, age 75.

A RESPONSE TO A “LIVING CONSTITUTIONALIST”

A RESPONSE TO A “LIVING CONSTITUTIONALIST”

Bruce Ledewitz is a very smart man who teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. He recently wrote an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer—also reproduced in other news outlets. In his article, he contends that the Supreme Court’s decision this year in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer discredited “originalism.” Originalism, of course, is the approach of interpreting the Constitution as the Founders adopted it.

Several leading originalists—including Professor Randy Barnett (Georgetown) and Professor Michael Ramsey (San Diego)—already have published good rejoinders.  I’ve been strongly urged to write one as well.

I normally avoid getting into arguments about what kind of interpretation is best. My focus is on researching the Constitution’s history and meaning rather than arguing about it.  However, I finally agreed to respond for one reason: I believe Professor Ledewitz’s article illustrates how even intelligent and mature law professors usually are unprepared for the tasks of writing and teaching about the Constitution.

Most law professors focus, both in study and teaching, on Supreme Court cases. Most know little about the Founding Era record. Most lack the historical training needed to assess that record. Very few have studied the law of the Founding Era. Very few are familiar with the materials the Founders studied during their education, especially the Greek and Roman classics. Exceedingly few law professors are competent in Latin, the Founders’ second language.

Finally, law professors often corrupt their understanding of the Constitution with their own political preferences—either by claiming it means whatever they want or by underestimating it because it doesn’t give them what they want. These problems afflict faculty even at the nation’s most prestigious law schools.

Following are excerpted passages from Professor Ledewitz’s article with a corrective response appended to each excerpt:

Professor Ledewitz: “It was probably always a mistake to take originalism seriously as a theory of constitutional interpretation.”

Answer: Professor Ledewitz apparently is unaware that, as explained below, “originalism” is merely the constitutional name for the method of documentary interpretation that has prevailed for centuries in the English and American judicial systems. Failing to take it seriously would be a far more radical change than I think even he would recommend.

Professor Ledewitz: “Originalism, or textualism as its great proponent, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, termed it, is the theory that constitutional provisions should be interpreted in accordance with their original public meaning.”

Answer: Textualism is not quite the same thing as originalism. Textualism focuses on the meaning of words while generally avoiding resort to materials generated during the legislative process. It is usually applied to the interpretation of statutes. Pure textualism is more defensible in modern statutory construction than in constitutional interpretation because legislative history is sometimes manipulated in ways that the Constitution’s background was not.

In its most precise form, originalism is the view that judges and other officials should be faithful to the Constitution the people actually ratified (as amended). Originalists believe that judges and other officials should avoid the temptation to substitute a “constitution” they might prefer for the actual, historical document.

Writers often use the phrases “original public meaning” and “intent of the framers” as shorthand for originalism. In the 18th century, the common shorthand for originalism was “finding the intent of the makers.” All those labels can be confusing. According to the rules prevailing when the Constitution was adopted (and today as well, as to almost all other documents), an interpreter tries to recover the understanding of the parties (ratifiers). If, because of insufficient or conflicting evidence the interpreter cannot do so, then he or she applies the original public meaning as a substitute.

Professor Ledewitz: “The theory never made any sense either as a matter of language or political theory and was premised on a nihilistic skepticism about the possibility of truth in political affairs.”

Answer: Whether one can obtain “truth in political affairs” is not really relevant to the issue of the meaning of a written constitution. One reason for putting the Constitution in writing was precisely to create a rule book to contain and civilize the tumult of politics.

Professor Ledewitz: “Nevertheless, originalism has achieved a real rhetorical dominance.”

Answer: He writes as if originalism were a recent development. But seeking “the intent of the makers” has been the prevailing Anglo-American legal method of interpretation for centuries. The Founders absorbed it from, among others, the 16th century legal scholar Edmund Plowden. During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries it was the prevailing way of interpreting the Constitution. Originalism’s “rhetorical dominance” was achieved because of this history and also because (1) that is how we construe most other legal documents (certain real estate instruments partially excepted), (2) it is hard to justify the current double standard, and (3) non-originalists have failed to agree on principled alternatives.

Professor Ledewitz: “But, with the Trinity Lutheran Church decision on June 26, originalism as a theory can confidently be relegated to the historical ash heap. In Trinity Lutheran, Missouri excluded a church playground from a state reimbursement grant program toward the purchase of safe playground surfacing material. . . .The church won, 7-2. Given the safety issue and the nonreligious nature of the playground, the decision was certainly a sensible outcome. But, from the point of view of originalism, the decision was ridiculous.”

Answer: Courts may err in applying any theory of interpretation. Assuming the decision in Trinity Lutheran was wrong, Professor Ledewitz does not explain why one error should discredit a procedure that has served us for centuries.

Professor Ledewitz: “If there was a single principle that united most of the framers and supporters of the original Establishment Clause, it was the prohibition against the payment of public money to churches.”

Answer: This is incorrect. The primary principle underlying the Establishment Clause was that Congress must treat all religions impartially. The Clause did not extend to the states. Those seeking “disestablishment” at the state level opposed taxpayer subsidies to churches designed to promote particular religions. They did not object to paying a church for unrelated contractual obligations—the scenario in Trinity Lutheran. And they would have been outraged at Missouri’s practice of discriminating against churches generally.

Moreover, as Professor Barnett has pointed out, the part of the Constitution most relevant to Trinity Lutheran is the Fourteenth Amendment, not the First. This is because the Supreme Court has applied First Amendment principles to the states only because of language in the Fourteenth Amendment. Professor Ledewitz’s article is devoid of any discussion—or even any mention—of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Professor Ledewitz: “The historical absurdity of the decision is why only the two dissenters, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, discussed the history of the religion clauses. But, since those two justices are not originalists, their discussion must be considered merely opportunistic. There are no originalists on the court.”

Answer: It is poor practice to conclude from a single decision—even assuming that it was erroneous—that there are “no originalists on the court.” Justice Clarence Thomas has applied originalist jurisprudence to countless cases throughout his long tenure. Based on several cases in his first term, Justice Gorsuch also appears to be an originalist.

Professor Ledewitz: “Although no one bothered to say so in the decision, a departure from historical understanding was justified in the Trinity Lutheran case because the modern sense of unjust discrimination is much more robust than when the First Amendment was adopted and government funding of private activity is much more prevalent than in the 18th century, when such spending was largely unknown. What would not have struck the framers as unfair discrimination against religious believers looks like that to us.”

Answer: There are a number of problems with this statement. First, Missouri relied on a section of its state constitution (the “Blaine provision”) designed to discriminate against particular religions, notably Roman Catholicism. This violated the central principle of the Establishment Clause as understood by the Founders, not merely by us.

Also, as noted above, the actual amendment governing the case was the Fourteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1868, not during the Founding Era. Discriminating against churches in distributing otherwise generally-available funding probably violates that Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. To contend that Missouri’s practice was consistent with the Constitution, one must argue both that (1) the Establishment Clause does not apply to the states and (2) the Fourteenth Amendment permits discrimination against churches. Professor Ledewitz does not make those arguments.

Professor Ledewitz: “That is how the living constitution works. We apply constitutional principles in ways that make sense today. We do not clone the thinking of political leaders who faced vastly different circumstances. . . .”

Answer: Following the Constitution does not require us to “clone the thinking” of anyone. It requires only that we follow the meaning of the words in a controlling document. Courts do that sort of thing all the time. It’s their job.

Moreover, what are the “constitutional principles” Professor Ledewitz would have us apply? Are they principles that we make up as we go along? In that case, we are acting politically, not constitutionally.

Or does he mean we should derive our constitutional principles from the Constitution? But the Constitution embodies a number of basic principles, and they sometimes conflict. The framers and ratifiers carefully crafted the document’s language to balance those principles in specific ways. Originalist interpretation enables us to understand the results. Non-originalist judges and professors often insist on re-balancing principles to suit themselves rather than inquiring how the Constitution balances them.  In doing so, they are acting politically, not constitutionally.

Incidentally, the Founders were thoroughly familiar with judicial balancing. In some parts of the Constitution, such as the Fourth Amendment (“unreasonable searches and seizures”) they authorized it. Basic principles of legal interpretation tell us that where the text, or its legal meaning, do not authorize balancing, then judges have no authority to engage in it.

Professor Ledewitz: “The Trinity Lutheran decision does not mean that the cottage industry of originalism will shut down. The reason for its continuation is that originalism as a political matter never had anything to do with interpretive theory. The real purpose of originalism is to overturn the expansion of federal government power associated with the New Deal. . . . .”

Answer: An interpretive method that has endured for centuries cannot have been designed to overturn the New Deal of the 1930s. On the contrary, it was “living constitutionalism”—not originalism—that was fashioned for political ends. It was designed to offer a constitutional fig leaf for a federal coup d’etat. Not surprisingly, most people who study constitutional jurisprudence find the fig leaf transparent.

Professor Ledewitz: “Even the Republican majority in Congress does not understand the bill of goods it is being sold under the name of originalism. Included in the healthcare reform proposals being debated in the Senate are proposed national caps on pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases. Whatever one thinks of these proposals, they concern a problem national in scope that Congress should have the power to deal with. Certainly the framers of the Constitution, who were practical men intending to create a federal government with the necessary powers to deal with national issues, would agree with that if they were alive today. But, from the perspective of the 18th century, any such legislation would be unconstitutional as invasive of the reserved powers of the states.”

Answer: Professor Ledewitz is correct that some aspects of Republican federal tort reform proposals violate the Constitution’s meaning—a conclusion I have previously documented. However, he misunderstands how the Constitution’s enumerated power scheme was designed. The Founders did not give the federal government power to deal with every issue one might think “national in scope.” They were, indeed, practical men, and as such they recognized human activities of some kinds (e.g., religion, manufacturing) often affect others (commerce, foreign relations). But precisely because they were practical, they also recognized that sometimes the advantages of allowing Congress to legislate in all connected areas were outweighed by the disadvantages (e.g. the threat to liberty of centralized power).

Accordingly, the Constitution’s scheme of enumerated powers deliberately reserves certain potentially-national issues to the exclusive jurisdiction of the states. Most aspects of civil justice, including tort law, are in this category. Legitimate interstate action is still possible, however—through uniform state laws, interstate compacts, and, as a last resort, by constitutional amendment.

Professor Ledewitz: “As the Trinity Lutheran case shows, we need not be ruled from the grave. All of our law, but especially constitutional law, should be interpreted from our own perspective.”

Answer: Is Professor Ledewitz saying that judges should re-write laws to their liking simply because some or all of their sponsors are no longer around? That is a prescription for oligarchy—and the Constitution was designed to protect us against that.

Of course, Americans could have adopted a British-style unwritten (living) constitution. That would have permitted a sufficiently determined cabal of politicians and judges to change the rules. Although academia is filled with modern-day Tories who would be happier in such a system, most Americans, whatever they think of particular judicial holdings, seem quite content to have our Constitution fixed and in writing.

Where Congress’s Power to Regulate Immigration Comes From

Where Congress’s Power to Regulate Immigration Comes From

Introduction. Earlier this year, a law journal published an exchange between two respected law professors—a conservative and a libertarian—about whether the Constitution authorizes Congress to regulate immigration. (The Constitution does not mention immigration except to say that Congress cannot ban it before 1808.) The conservative said “Yes,” and supported his position with some extremely liberal (!) readings of parts of the Constitution. The libertarian said, “No”—that except in special circumstances Congress could not restrict immigration (although the states could).

Surprisingly, both contributors missed the actual source of Congress’s immigration authority: the power “To define and punish . . . Offences against the Law of Nations”) (Article I, Section 8, Clause 10).

The law journal already had been published, so it was too late to join the discussion on its pages. Accordingly, I wrote an article in The Hill detailing why the “Define and Punish Clause” applies to immigration. The libertarian replied on the pages of the Volokh Conspiracy, a Washington Post blog to which he regularly contributes, and for which I have occasionally written as well.

I thought this issue was worth a full explanation of why the Define and Punish Clause covers immigration, because its applicability to immigration is not well known, even among legal experts. Accordingly, I prepared the essay below for readers interested in immigration issues. As should be apparent from this essay, I am NOT taking a stand on immigration policy, just on an issue of constitutional interpretation. This essay appeared in Josh Blackman’s Blog.

Links to some of the earlier writings appear in the essay.

Why the Define and Punish Clause Grants Congress Power to Regulate Immigration

By Robert G. Natelson

            In a recent article in The Hill, I wrote that the Constitution’s grant to Congress of power “To define and punish . . . Offences against the Law of Nations” confers authority to restrict immigration. Professor Ilya Somin has responded and argues the contrary.

Before addressing his argument, I should make clear I agree with Professor Somin on several key issues about the Constitution and immigration. I agree that the original meaning of the Commerce Clause does not include a general power to restrict immigration, and that the Naturalization Clause probably does not, either. In company with him, I reject the claim that the federal government possesses extra-constitutional inherent sovereign authority—because that claim is starkly inconsistent with the ratification-era debates, the structure of the Constitution, and the text of the Tenth Amendment.

Where we differ is about whether the power to “define and punish Offences against the Law of Nations” includes authority to restrict immigration.

“The Law of Nations” was the usual 18th century term for international law. Most of the law of nations governed how nations interacted with other nations. However, some aspects governed how they interacted with foreigners and a few aspects—such as the law merchant—regulated how citizens of different countries interacted with each other.

The law of nations was based on natural law, custom, and international agreements. However, the rules were not always clearly defined, and they were not self-executing. For this reason, legislatures adopted implementing statutes. Examples of such statutes were those protecting safe-conduct passes from disrespect and foreign ambassadors from insult. The Define and Punish Clause granted Congress authority to adopt implementing measures.

The law of nations held, as a general principle, that nations should not harm each other. Hence, it provided that nations must refrain from unauthorized incursions into other nations’ territory. To violate international law, the unauthorized entry need not be led by a foreign government. As the Founders’ favorite international law scholar, Emer de Vattel observed, “Private persons, who are members of one nation . . . may injure a foreign sovereign.” Immigration statutes implemented the “no unauthorized entry” norm against “private persons” from other countries.

Professor Somin acknowledges that “the law of nations did indeed assume that each state has the authority to restrict the entry of aliens, largely as it sees fit.” But he notes that the mere fact that the law of nations authorized a sovereign to adopt legislation did not render the legislation part of the law of nations. For example, the law of nations recognized a sovereign’s prerogative to enact statutes forbidding murder. However, most murders were not offenses against the law of nations. Moreover, if it were true that any statute consistent with international jurisprudence were part of international jurisprudence, the Define and Punish Clause would empower Congress to adopt any ordinary police legislation permitted by international law. Such a sweeping grant of power to Congress would be inconsistent with the Founders’ design.

On these points Professor Somin is correct.

On the other hand, some domestic statutes surely did define offences against the law of nations. An example is a statute prohibiting a citizen from insulting or impeding a foreign ambassador. Thus, to state that the Define and Punish Clause does not authorize all domestic laws does not answer the question of which domestic laws it does authorize. Is a statute restricting immigration in the class with ordinary murder laws or in the class with protections for ambassadors? Immigration limits have international implications that ordinary murder laws do not have. So reasoning would seem to place immigration restrictions in the “law of nations” category.

But questions of constitutional meaning cannot be answered through pure reason, however acute. Nor does the constitutional answer lie in what we moderns think international law is or should be—a mistake into which Professor Somin’s essay slips once or twice.

At least to an originalist who follows Founding-Era norms of interpretation, the meaning of a constitutional term is fixed by the understanding of those who ratified it or, in absence of sufficient coherent evidence on that subject, by the original public meaning. When, as here, the constitutional debates provide little relevant evidence on the sense of a legal term, our best evidence of its meaning may be Founding-Era jurisprudence. (I say “may be” because contemporaneous congressional and state records are sometimes more helpful.)

To a modern reader, some of the classifications adopted by 18th century jurisprudence appear arbitrary. Yet those classifications often serve to define constitutional meaning. The framers treated bankruptcy and commerce separately, despite their interrelated nature, because they were distinct legal categories. Similarly, the legal phrase of “to regulate Commerce” encompassed travel by ship but not (most) travel by foot. So under the Constitution’s original legal force, the power to regulate commerce included boat travel from Canada but not (usually) walking across the border.

Helpful to grasping international law jurisprudence as the Founders understood it are three treatises they held in high esteem: Samuel Pufendorf’s 17th century work, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, and two 18th century works: Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations and Blackstone’s Commentaries.

Vattel wrote that the law of nations derived from the natural law applicable to individuals, as modified by convention and by the special circumstances of sovereigns: “[C]onsequently, the law of nations is originally no other than the law of nature applied to nations” (emphasis in original). Indeed, both Vattel and Pufendorf frequently drew upon rules of natural law applicable to individuals to deduce or justify substantive rules of international law. By way of illustration, here is how Pufendorf justifies immigration restrictions:

The Case is somewhat like that of a private Man, who in his House or Gardens, possesses some rare Curiosity, or other valuable Sight; such an one does not apprehend himself tied freely to let in all Spectators . . . And this seems the more reasonable, because the Grounds of prudent Caution and Suspicion are so numerous. . . .

And farther, that it seems very gross and absurd, to allow others an indefinite or unlimited Right of traveling and living among us, without reflecting either on their Number, or on the Design of their coming; whether supposing them to pass harmlessly, they intend only to take a short view of our Country, or whether they claim a Right of fixing themselves with us for ever. And that he who will stretch the Duty of Hospitality to this extravagant Extent, ought to be rejected as a most unreasonable, and most improper Judge of the Case.

As to our main Question, it is look’d on by most as the safest way of resolving it, to say, That it is left in the power of all States, to take such Measures about the Admission of Strangers, as they think convenient . . . .

I suppose Professor Somin might respond that Pufendorf was merely asserting the power of nations to exclude foreigners—that Pufendorf was not saying the intrusion violated the law of nations. But this does not seem justified by the context. Pufendorf was engaged in the common methodology of using rules of domestic law to deduce rules of international law. Domestic law not only gives permission to a householder to decide to exclude. Domestic law also makes it an offense to disregard the householder’s decision. I see no reason why international law would not encompass both the decision to exclude and unauthorized disregard of that decision. As noted earlier, immigration laws are not purely domestic in their effect; they have important international implications.

Blackstone understood this passage the same way I do, and for purposes of constitutional interpretation Blackstone’s exposition matters a great deal. Explicitly relying on this passage, Blackstone wrote, “Upon exactly the same reason stands the prerogative of granting safe-conducts, without which by the law of nations no member of one society has a right to intrude into another. (emphasis added).” To Blackstone, then, the law of nations does not merely grant a sovereign the right to exclude. A violation is itself an offence against the law of nations.

Now we turn to Vattel’s treatise. It consists of four books. The first was entitled “Of Nations considered in themselves.” A major theme of this first book is the derivation of rules of governance from natural law principles. Despite the title, the book goes beyond questions of internal governance to deduce conclusions about the law of nations. Among those conclusions:

*          “A nation or state has a right to every thing that can help to ward off imminent danger;”

*          nations may limit or ban imports;

*          they may refuse to trade with others; and

*          they may restrict emigration and immigration, taking into consideration a range of factors, including available land, health concerns, avoiding religious strife, and factors of safety and culture. Indeed, the nation “has a right, and is even obliged, to follow, in this respect, the suggestions of prudence.”

Now, these seem like rules of international law to me. And in respect to immigration at least, they go beyond mere permission: They extend to obligation—for a sovereign “is even obliged” to legislate according to likely consequences.

Vattel further supports the conclusion that the law of nations includes the substance of immigration statutes. In this book, he mentions a rule among some European states denying citizenship to foreigners. Vattel characterizes the rule—not merely the authorization—as “the law of nations, established there by custom.” Professor Somin observes that this custom regulated citizenship rather than immigration. But that distinction actually cuts against his argument: If even an internal citizenship rule dealing with foreigners—a rule central to the life of a polity—is part of the law of nations, then a limit on foreigners crossing the border is one a fortiorari. (As Professor Somin correctly states, Vattel didn’t like the custom of denying citizenship to foreigners. But that is wholly beside the point.)

Yet, perhaps one might object that Vattel’s first book is really only about “Nations considered in themselves,” and that we should therefore be cautious about treating its conclusions as part of the law of nations.

So let us examine Vattel’s second book. Its title tells us it is wholly about the law of nations: “Of a Nation Considered in its Relation to Others.” (The third and fourth books are about war and peace, respectively.) Here are some passages from the second book, presented in order of appearance:

As every thing included in the country belongs to the nation—and as none but the nation, or the person on whom she has devolved her right, is authorised to dispose of those things,— if she has left uncultivated and desert places in the country, no person whatever has a right to take possession of them without her consent. Though she does not make actual use of them, those places still belong to her: she has an interest in preserving them for future use, and is not accountable to any person for the manner in which she makes use of her property.

 * * * *

Since the least encroachment on the territory of another is an act of injustice . . . the limits of territories ought to be marked out with clearness and precision.

 * * * *

We should not only refrain from usurping the territory of others; we should also respect it, and abstain from every act contrary to the rights of the sovereign: for a foreign nation can claim no right in it.

    * * * *

The sovereign may forbid the entrance of his territory either to foreigners in general, or in particular cases, or to certain persons, or for certain particular purposes, according as he may think it advantageous to the state. There is nothing in all this, that does not flow from the rights of domain and sovereignty: every one is obliged to pay respect to the prohibition; and whoever dares to violate it, incurs the penalty decreed to render it effectual. But the prohibition ought to be known, as well as the penalty annexed to disobedience: those who are ignorant of it, ought to be informed of it when they approach to enter the country.

 * * * *

Since the lord of the territory may, whenever he thinks proper, forbid its being entered, he has no doubt a power to annex what conditions he pleases to the permission to enter. This, as we have already said, is a consequence of the right of domain.

Perhaps one might rejoin, “Here again, Vattel says only that the law of nations permits sovereigns to restrict immigration; he does not say that violations are part of the law of nations.” On the contrary, though, Vattel does more than describe the prerogative of the sovereign to exclude. In this book (remember: focusing on international norms) Vattel also prescribes the duty to obey:

*          “We should not only refrain from usurping the territory of others; we should also respect it, and abstain from every act contrary to the rights of the sovereign;” and

*          “[E]very one is obliged to pay respect to the prohibition; and whoever dares to violate it, incurs the penalty decreed to render it effectual.”

Even if these passages of obligation were absent, I don’t think it is the most natural reading of the text to infer that the right to enact a restrictive statute is a component of international law but violation of the statute is not. I doubt many Americans reading Vattel during the Founding Era would think a book entitled “Of a Nation Considered in its Relation to Others” was telling them, “The law of nations authorizes restrictive immigration statutes but is wholly agnostic about their violation.” Certainly Vattel never says that.

One last point—not fully germane, but worth mentioning. Professor Somin writes, “But in the eighteenth century, and even today, states have no international law obligation to prevent the peaceful migration of their citizens to foreign nations that might wish to exclude them.” Vattel, at least, may well have disagreed:

If a sovereign, who might keep his subjects within the rules of justice and peace, suffers them to injure a foreign nation either in its body or its members, he does no less injury to that nation, than if he injured it himself.

* * * *

Finally, there is another case where the nation in general is guilty of the crimes of its members. That is when by its manners and by the maxims of its government it accustoms and authorizes its citizens . . . to make inroads into neighboring countries.