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The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution
    Book Description:

    John Compton shows how evangelicals, not New Deal reformers, paved the way for the most important constitutional developments of the twentieth century. Their early-1800s crusade to destroy property that made immorality possible challenged founding-era legal protections of slavery, lotteries, and liquor sales and opened the door to progressivism.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-41988-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Law, History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    In twenty-first-century America, religion seems to go hand in hand with veneration of the Constitution and its framers. Devout believers overwhelmingly endorse the view that the Constitution should be interpreted “as originally written.” Socially conservative politicians promise to oppose the nomination of judges who are not “dedicated to the original document and its original meaning.” And every year, dozens of books portraying the founders as orthodox Christian believers and the Constitution as divinely inspired appear in bookstores.¹

    As natural as it may seem today, however, the connection between religious faith and constitutional faith is a relatively recent development. In fact,...

  4. 1 The Evangelical Challenge to American Constitutionalism
    (pp. 19-51)

    The constitutional system that emerged from the Philadelphia Convention has been aptly described as a “commercial republic.”¹ Th e label highlights what is perhaps the most striking feature of the framers’ handiwork: their subordination of traditional moral and religious purposes to the worldly goals of protecting property and promoting economic development. At a time when official references to the Almighty were commonplace, the framers took the surprising step of creating an essentially secular document: the text did not invoke God’s blessing, nor did it even mention Him, save in a single reference in the signatory section to the “Year of...

  5. 2 Moral Reform and Constitutional Adjudication, 1830–1854
    (pp. 52-72)

    In 1826, Lyman Beecher delivered an influential sermon series prescribing a “course of systematic action” for combatting the “national sin” of intemperance.¹ Beecher’s plan of action—which would later be published asSix Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance—consisted of four steps. The first step would be to educate the public on the personal and social costs of the liquor traffic. Voluntary societies would be formed for this purpose: their members would “pass through the land, collect information, confer with influential individuals and bodies of men, [and] deliver addresses at popular meetings.”² Boycotts would...

  6. 3 The Triumph of Evangelical Public Morality in the States
    (pp. 73-90)

    In early 1855, Vermont Chief Justice Isaac Redfield authored an opinion declaring that the enforcement provisions of the state’s recently enacted prohibition law were “at variance with the very first principles of constitutional liberty.” Although Redfield, a jurist who is today remembered as a proponent of an expansive police power, affirmed the legislature’s power to declare any form of property to be “contraband” and “unworthy [of] the protection of the law,” he nonetheless insisted that this power was in practice limited by the constitutional rights of property owners and criminal defendants.¹ Redfield thus deemed his state’s prohibition law unconstitutional on...

  7. 4 The Triumph of Evangelical Public Morality in the Supreme Court
    (pp. 91-132)

    The Civil War and Reconstruction years were trying times for evangelical reformers, notwithstanding their constitutional victories in the state courts. By the late 1860s, most of the twelve Maine Law states had abandoned the experiment with statewide prohibition and returned to some form of local option. What was worse, the lottery industry, which had been all but extinct in 1861, returned from the grave, as several cash-strapped state legislatures authorized new lottery grants for the first time in a generation. But the moral declension of the war years did not, in the end, reflect a fundamental shift in social mores....

  8. 5 Reexamining the Collapse of the Old Order
    (pp. 133-176)

    In the early decades of the twentieth century, a series of Supreme Court rulings invalidating broadly popular progressive reforms—from wage and hours laws to child labor restrictions—provoked a sustained assault on the doctrinal underpinnings of the traditional constitutional order. The critics of the old order were a professionally diverse group: their ranks included law professors (Roscoe Pound, Felix Frankfurter), political scientists (Edward Corwin, Thomas Reed Powell), economists (Robert Lee Hale, John R. Commons), philosophers (Morris Cohen, John Dewey), and Supreme Court justices (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis). Regardless of professional background, however, these critics of the old order...

  9. Conclusion: The Evangelical Origins of the Modern Constitutional Order
    (pp. 177-182)

    To a remarkable extent, American constitutional theory is even today dominated by questions surrounding the legitimacy of the New Deal-era constitutional revolution. Indeed, the basic terms of the debate have remained more or less stagnant since the 1930s. On one side, critics of the modern order echo the complaints of the New Deal Court’s Four Horsemen, lamenting the collapse of economic rights, the uncontrolled expansion of federal power, and the judiciary’s disregard for the original intent of the framers. In this telling, the story of the constitutional revolution is a story of national corruption. In thrall to the possibilities of...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 185-252)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 253-254)
  12. Index
    (pp. 255-261)