The New Originalism and the Uses of History

79 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2013 Last revised: 25 Oct 2013

Date Written: August 1, 2013


Central to the New Originalism is the distinction between constitutional interpretation and constitutional construction. Interpretation tries to figure out the Constitution's original communicative content, while construction builds out doctrines, institutions and practices over time. Most of the work of constitutional lawyers and judges is constitutional construction.

The distinction between interpretation and construction has important consequences for constitutional theory. In particular, it has important consequences for longstanding debates about how lawyers use history and should use history.

First, construction, not interpretation, is the central case of constitutional argument, and most historical argument occurs in the construction zone.

Second, although people often associate historical argument with originalist argument, the actual practices of lawyers and judges demonstrate that non-adoption history is as important as adoption history to constitutional construction.

Third, there is no single modality of “historical argument.” Instead, history is relevant to many different kinds of constitutional argument. One important task of this article is to rethink the familiar model of modalities of argument offered by Philip Bobbitt and Richard Fallon; and to offer a different version that better reflects the multiple ways that lawyers and judges actually use history in constitutional argument.

Fourth, according to the New Originalism, arguments about adoption history can offer mandatory answers only with respect to questions of interpretation; they cannot do so for questions of constitutional construction. That is, New Originalists accept an originalist model of authority only with respect to questions of interpretation, not construction. Yet New Originalists, like most lawyers, often make appeals to adoption history in constitutional construction. This raises the obvious question why American judges and lawyers should use or accept arguments from adoption history in constitutional construction and only sometimes find them persuasive. The originalist model of authority by itself cannot answer this question.

Fifth, we can solve this puzzle by paying careful attention to how lawyers and judges actually use adoption history. In constitutional construction, “originalist” argument is not a single form of argument. It involves many different kinds of argument, and it often appeals to ethos, tradition or “culture heroes” -- honored authorities who are treated as objects of respect, wisdom and emulation.

In fact, in constitutional construction, arguments from adoption history are often hybrid; they appeal to multiple modalities of argument simultaneously. Most arguments about the founding period usually also make implicit appeals to one of three modes of argument: national ethos, political tradition, or honored authority.

This hybrid nature gives arguments from adoption history their distinctive character in constitutional construction. Despite the dominance of original public meaning originalism in originalist theory, lawyers actually use adoption history quite differently than academic theory prescribes.

Sixth, precisely because originalist arguments (in constitutional construction) generally appeal to ethos and tradition, they will normally not be persuasive unless the audience can plausibly accept the values of the adopters as their own or can re-characterize them so that they can plausibly accept them as their own. When these values appear too alien or irrelevant, lawyers generally avoid making originalist arguments. Thus, lawyers do not feel an obligation to consult adoption history in every case; and when they do, they do not accept the results of adoption history as binding on them if there are other considerations.

Seventh, in constitutional construction, adoption history is a valuable resource available to originalists and non-originalists alike. Indeed, once they understand how originalist-style arguments actually operate in the construction zone, non-originalists and living constitutionalists should have no qualms about appealing to adoption history and making originalist arguments. Using such arguments does not undermine living constitutionalist theories of construction in the least. Refusing to employ adoption history serves no important theoretical principle and has no significant rhetorical advantages; indeed, all it does is limit lawyers’ ability to persuade their fellow citizens through calling on shared traditions and invoking powerful symbols of cultural memory.

Keywords: Constitutional Interpretation, Construction, History, Originalism, Constitutional Argument, Tradition, Ethos, Cultural Memory

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M., The New Originalism and the Uses of History (August 1, 2013). Fordham Law Review, Forthcoming, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 303, Available at SSRN:

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

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