Optimistic Originalism and the Reconstruction Amendments

78 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2020 Last revised: 16 Jan 2021

Date Written: 2020


This article critically examines the relationship of contemporary “public meaning” originalism to the legal achievement of the Reconstruction Amendments. It identifies an influential “optimistic” trend in recent originalist scholarship. A growing number of scholars contend that public meaning originalism can successfully address constitutional issues in light of the Reconstruction amendments. They argue that rightly understood, the Fourteenth Amendment’s original meaning aligns precisely with contemporary case outcomes, especially with respect to providing broad antidiscrimination rights to African Americans and women.

In this article I challenge originalism’s optimistic turn by examining it through a historical lens. Based on a wide-ranging review of recent historical scholarship, I argue that the theory of original public meaning in effect gives scholars permission to be optimists about Reconstruction by allowing them to sidestep its full historical context. This avoids the reality that relative to the point of view of Americans today, the constitutional law of the nineteenth century, which contained doctrines that both predated and outlasted Reconstruction, was unfortunate in many ways.

The argument presented in this article concerning the extent to which the Reconstruction amendments changed prior law has significance beyond the confines of the debate over originalism. The questions raised concerning the cogency of optimistic originalism suggests we should reassess the role of Reconstruction in contemporary legal scholarship. Many constitutional scholars are similarly “optimistic” about the Reconstruction amendments even though they do not count themselves as originalists. I have come to doubt whether the legacy of Reconstruction is as uniformly constructive as it is often represented – at least by legal scholars as opposed to historians.

I argue that the limits of Reconstruction become clearer once we focus on the question of whether there were constitutional reasons for its failure, reasons that were only later addressed, however incompletely, in the Second Reconstruction of the civil rights movement. My account suggests that if we are interested in understanding how constitutional law changes legitimately both inside and outside Article V, revisiting Reconstruction through the use of sound methods based in the practice of historians should steer us away from originalism and toward historicist theories of constitutional change.

The article proceeds in four parts. Because the debate between originalism and nonoriginalism is ongoing and multifaceted, Part I provides a necessary orientation to the debate and roadmap of the arguments and themes pursued in the rest of the article. Parts II and III are the heart of the article. Part II reboots the discussion of Reconstruction for legal scholarship by describing its historical context in a way that reveals its constitutional limits. I then use this context to critique prominent optimistic originalist accounts of the Fourteenth Amendment in Part III. I first present what I call the “sequencing argument,” detailing a problem that arises only for public meaning originalism. The remainder of Part III discusses two central issues for optimistic originalism: racial equality, especially with respect to school desegregation, and equal rights for women. Part IV draws on the historical discussion in the previous parts and the idea of “constitutional change as state building” to provide an overview of the failure of the First Reconstruction and show why the Second Reconstruction was legally necessary.

Keywords: Reconstruction, Fourteenth Amendment, originalism, original public meaning, state building, constitutional change, school segregation, Slaughter-House cases

Suggested Citation

Griffin, Stephen M., Optimistic Originalism and the Reconstruction Amendments (2020). 95 Tulane Law Review (2020; Forthcoming), Tulane Public Law Research Paper No. 20-3, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3558673

Stephen M. Griffin (Contact Author)

Tulane University Law School ( email )

6329 Freret Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States
504-865-5910 (Phone)
504-862-8857 (Fax)

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