A Mostly Purposivist Century: Theories of Constitutional Interpretation in the 1800s

38 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2009 Last revised: 23 Dec 2009

See all articles by John P. Figura

John P. Figura

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: December 16, 2009


Resounding in the debate between textualists and purposivists, is a pervasive, if subtle, historical narrative that figures purposivism as a twentieth-century phenomenon and textualism as a new-and-improved version of the text-focused, plain-meaning interpretation that predominated in the nineteenth century. This account gives textualists the historical high ground - the safe, traditional, and conservative choice - and puts purposivists in the position of having to defend a relatively recent and comparatively radical position.

This accuracy of this account is belied, however, by nineteenth-century judges’ methods of constitutional interpretation, as expounded by treatise writers of the era. Their theories can be categorized in three groups, none of which is more than superficially textualist. First was an approach popularized by Joseph Story in mid-century that I call plain meaning purposivism. These thinkers embraced a strong plain meaning rule and a text-focused interpretive framework, but they founded their approach on a set of strongly intentionalist and purposivist notions of the overall meaning of the Constitution. This school was followed after the Civil War by a more direct form of purposivism that I refer to simply as conventional purposivism. These purposivists softened the plain-meaning purposivists’ meaning rule and counseled interpreters to more freely use extratextual indicia of constitutional and legislative intent. By the 1880s, a third and non-purposivist group had evolved: evolutionary constitutionalists. In their view, the Constitution should be interpreted not with regard to original intention but with a Burkean, Spencerian understanding of the nation’s evolving cultural, social, and economic character.

The nineteenth century, then, was a mostly purposivist age. It was an era in which purposivism, in contrast to evolutionary constitutionalism, was the textually conservative choice, and in which textualism, which is founded on the fundamental rejection of intentionalism, did not exist. An understanding of this history is particularly pertinent today, as our interpretive discourse stands poised to discard purposivism and enter an age of textualist consensus.

Keywords: Purposivism, Textualism, plain meaning, Joseph Story, Thomas Cooley, John Norton Pomeroy, Christopher Tiedeman, Francis Wharton

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K20, K30, K40

Suggested Citation

Figura, John P., A Mostly Purposivist Century: Theories of Constitutional Interpretation in the 1800s (December 16, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1524343 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1524343

John P. Figura (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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