Laying Claim to the Constitution: The Promise of New Textualism

37 Pages Posted: 13 May 2011

See all articles by James E. Ryan

James E. Ryan

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education

Date Written: May 13, 2011


Living constitutionalism is largely dead. So, too, is old-style originalism. Instead, there is increasing convergence in the legal academy around what might be called “new textualism.” The core principle of new textualism is that constitutional interpretation must start with a determination, based on evidence from the text, structure, and enactment history, of what the language in the Constitution actually means.

This might not sound revolutionary. But it is. This Article explains how we have arrived at this point, why it is significant, and what work remains to be done. In particular, it explains why new textualism is especially important to progressives, as it offers them both a principled and promising means by which to lay claim to the Constitution. New textualists are effectively rebutting, once and for all, the false but still-common perceptions that only conservatives care about the text of the Constitution and that the Constitution itself is fundamentally a conservative document. If new textualists succeed in their effort to show that the Constitution - all of it, including the amendments - is actually a quite progressive document, this reorientation would represent the most significant shift in constitutional theory and politics in more than a generation.

Suggested Citation

Ryan, James E., Laying Claim to the Constitution: The Promise of New Textualism (May 13, 2011). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 97, November 2011, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2011-19, Available at SSRN:

James E. Ryan (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education ( email )

6 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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