Corpus Linguistics and 'Officers of the United States'

59 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2018 Last revised: 31 May 2019

See all articles by James Cleith Phillips

James Cleith Phillips

Chapman University, The Dale E. Fowler School of Law

Benjamin Lee

Brigham Young University

Jacob Crump

Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Students

Date Written: March 15, 2018


With the Supreme Court set to decide Lucia v. SEC this term, it has a chance to revisit the meaning of “officers of the United States.” Forty years of court precedent argue the term means one exercising significant government authority, though that precedent did not seek to determine the term's original meaning. Recent scholarship by Jenn Mascott contends that the term’s original meaning is much broader, encompassing anyone employed by the government who has a continuing duty.

To find such, Professor Mascott performed, in part, “corpus linguistic-like” analysis on the papers of six founders, covering 1783-1789, a total of about 7.7 million words from 16,000 texts. By turning to the new beta version of the Corpus of Founding Era American English, we take this analysis one step further on several different dimensions. First, we survey a larger number of dictionaries to try and get a preliminary idea of the attested senses of “officer” at the founding. Next, we expand the time period of our corpus linguistic inquiry from 1760-1799. Third, across this time period we look not only at these six founders’ papers, but also documents from the Evans Early American Imprint Series, which contains texts from more ordinary Americans, a wider variety of types of texts, and on a wider variety of subjects than the founders’ writings. Additionally, we also look at legal documents from Hein Online’s collection. In all, these three different sources consist of about 150 million words from 120,000 texts. Finally, we expand our search beyond just “officer(s)” or “officer(s) of the United States” to include officer within 5 words of the words public or civil; other officer(s) of (the) (federal) government; officer(s) of (the) (federal) government; and variations on publicly employed. We sample approximately 150 instances from each of these four searches, balancing across all three sources of documents (Founders, Evans, and Hein).

We find the original meaning of “officers of the United States” is messy, but arguably closer to Professor Mascott’s views than the Supreme Court’s. In other words, a definition of "officer of the United States" that is a person exercising significant government authority appears too narrow. But a definition that was anyone working for the government would seem too broad. Further corpus linguistic research as well as other originalist methodologies are necessary. We also note the limitations to our methodology and thus our findings.

Suggested Citation

Phillips, James Cleith and Lee, Benjamin and Crump, Jacob, Corpus Linguistics and 'Officers of the United States' (March 15, 2018). Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 42, 2019, Available at SSRN: or

James Cleith Phillips (Contact Author)

Chapman University, The Dale E. Fowler School of Law ( email )

One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866-1099
United States

HOME PAGE: http://

Benjamin Lee

Brigham Young University ( email )

Provo, UT 84602
United States

Jacob Crump

Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Students ( email )

Provo, UT
United States
801-471-9417 (Phone)

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