Constitutionalism in Unexpected Places

51 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2019 Last revised: 13 Aug 2020

See all articles by Farah Peterson

Farah Peterson

University of Chicago Law School

Date Written: December 13, 2019


Before, during, and after the ratification of the federal Constitution of 1787, Americans believed that they were governed under an unwritten constitution, a constitution that described an arrangement of power, confirmed ancient rights, and restricted government action. The existence of this unwritten constitution, and particularly its continuity, is something legal scholars have not adequately understood. Instead, both originalists and scholars of the “living” constitution think of 1787 as a hard break from the past and a starting point for their investigations.

But Americans of the Founding generation did not share our view that the only constitution that mattered was the one the Framers designed. This Article focuses on a feature of American colonial life that reappeared with striking continuity for three generations after Independence—the vindication of unwritten constitutional rights by mob action, and specifically, the tradition of mobs turning to Indian costume to express a specific series of constitutional grievances. During the age of the Revolution, many Americans believed that mobs in the streets performed a legitimate role in the enforcement of their unwritten constitution. These mob actions involved ritualistic violence and consistent, non-linguistic symbolism. The endurance of this form of constitutional engagement, employing the same symbols to assert the same suite of legal claims, is simply astonishing. It is evidence of the tenacity of a series of constitutional commitments predating the Founding that were not encompassed by, or replaced with, a written constitution.

This Article also makes a methodological point. An exclusive focus on official texts and the words, pamphlets, and letters of great men robs historical investigation of its depth and risks missing crucial insights about the past. Important evidence revealing how Americans conceived of their constitution and of themselves as legal actors can be found in their customs, in behavior, in performances in public spaces, and in the life of important ideas in literature and art. This Article focuses on a peculiar phenomenon as a way of modeling this point. The white protestor in Indian costume may seem like an oddity, but a deeper investigation reveals him to be a missing link, a key to how Americans believed their society was constituted, how they thought about justice, and how they understood the obligations the Revolution laid upon its inheritors.

Suggested Citation

Peterson, Farah, Constitutionalism in Unexpected Places (December 13, 2019). 106 Va. L. Rev. 559 (2020), Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2020-32, Available at SSRN:

Farah Peterson (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

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