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Economic Liberties and the Original Meaning of the Constitution

60 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2007  

James W. Ely Jr.

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: October 1, 2007


This essay examines the waxing support for the ideology and practice of economic liberty in the founding era. It points out that Americans of the late 18th century increasingly challenged British trade restrictions as well as long-accepted governmental regulation of the economy, raising both practical and philosophical objections. The paper considers various aspects of the colonial economy, including wage controls, regulations governing the price of bread and meat, the establishment of public markets, changes in land and inheritance laws, land speculation, and the growth of contracting in a market economy. It also probes the impact of the Revolutionary War on the emerging commitment to a free market. The paper then links the growing acceptance of economic liberty to the framing of state and federal constitutions. Although recognizing that the United States Constitution does not embody a particular economic theory, the paper concludes that the framers envisioned a substantially free market economy based on private property with a large measure of economic liberty for individuals to pursue their own interests.

Keywords: : contract clause, economic liberty, land speculation, mercantilism, price regulations, property rights, public markets, wage controls

Suggested Citation

Ely, James W., Economic Liberties and the Original Meaning of the Constitution (October 1, 2007). Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 07-17. Available at SSRN: or

James W. Ely Jr. (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

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