Making Changes to Fundamental Law

Thanks to Deven, Gerard, and everyone else at Concurring Opinions for the warm welcome.  I plan to blog a bit about the new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions, as well as some matters related to ongoing research.

A few words about the conception of the book.  It combines American history and legal theory in a way that I hope tells us some new things about events and ideas that have already received some scholarly attention.  It also analyzes some events in constitutionally significant terms when they previously have not received such treatment (e.g., the world federalist movement, the recent drafting of an Aryan constitution).  In doing so, the book seeks to shed light on certain recurring theoretical questions about our constitutional process, writ large.  The primary organizing themes are the dual meta-principles of written constitutionalism and popular sovereignty, combined by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution and unleashed on the population.  I’m interested in how average people adapt these basic principles to forge new relationships and communities, develop novel procedures for authorizing a constitution, and defend extra-legal tactics.

The book’s ambition is to go beyond current treatments of “popular constitutionalism”–so we can have an honest discussion about the energizing and dangerous aspects of our political tradition.  I pick eight examples where Americans wrote constitutions at various important moments in time, in order to explore these questions.  The colorful cast of characters consists of squatters, native Americans, slaveholders, abolitionists, socialists, world federalists, black nationalists, and white separatists.  I explore how the functions of writing and notions of sovereignty mutate after the Founding period.

Allow me to begin by suggesting that these constitution-writing episodes push us to reevaluate what we think we know about the procedure for making constitutional law.  Just to get the ball rolling, much of the literature identifies the following ways of altering fundamental law (let’s note but for now bracket the crucial lurking question of the relative legitimacy of each approach):

1.  Making foundational law during a true revolutionary moment, marked by political breakdown or some other break in historical time, when procedural questions are up for grabs along with substantive commitments.

2.  Formally amending a constitutional text (in the U.S. Constitution, according to the process outlined in Article V) without rejecting the continuing legitimacy of the legal order created.

3.  Creatively using conventional national institutions (say, by one party winning successive elections, enacting transformative laws, making key judicial appointments, winning landmark decisions through litigation).  Again, this is done without rejecting the authority of the overarching legal order.

4.  Gaining control of key bureaucracies (White House, OLC, DOD) or forging government-private relationships (such as Federalist Society-DOJ-Judiciary).  These social networks may not be lasting, but the goal is to achieve major shifts in substantive law rather than to overthrow an entire system.

5.  Creating a social movement that signals popular discontent, shapes public debate, forces national institutions to rethink governing commitments.

What are the protagonists in my stories doing?  For the most part, options # 2, # 3, and # 4 elude their grasp.  Typically, they compose a small group holding marginalized ideas, so it is not realistic to dominate any particular political party, win successive elections, or gain ideological control of key institutions.  Even where, as with the Confederates, they enjoyed a degree of access to formal power at the national level, they have given up on the possibility of making fundamental law within the conventional rules.  Option # 5 is possible for a few of my groups, but in the main they find themselves on the outliers of oppositional movements and trends.  In fact, the act of writing a constitution signals their differences with other dissenters in terms of state-building goals and tactics, not to mention the depths of their despondency that legal change through conventional means is possible.

None of my popular legal theorists believes that anything in the 1787 Constitution or our political tradition requires preapproval to write a new constitution; it merely dictates how rewrites of the existing one must be accomplished.  The right to write is inherent and fundamental.  They also agree that the people have the power to alter the basis and terms of political community.  Where they tend to differ is over tactics and procedures.

For some–let’s call them the classical revolutionaries–they believe themselves to be engaged in process # 1.  They confidently point to ample evidence of political breakdown, and argue that they are justified in authoring a new governing document and coming up with completely new protocols for deliberation and ratification.  This best captures the slaveholding statesmen who formed the Confederate States of America, though their theory of consent is vigorously disputed by Lincoln and other defenders of the 1787 Constitution.

At first blush, the classical situation also seemingly captures John Brown’s proposal for a new republican form of government and the Republic of New Afrika’s constitution created by the followers of Malcolm X after his assassination.  In both cases, people’s conventions determined that the original Constitution did not bind them, either because it was irreparably broken due to slavery and racial subjugation, or because the Framers never gained the rightful consent of the governed (i.e., slaves and former slaves).

Here’s where it gets complicated.  Most people don’t agree the country faces a true revolutionary moment.  Each dissident group gains supporters, but never enough regular folks to threaten the national legal order as a social movement, or enough elites to control any formal levers of power.  Each struggles with the question of violence as a tool for constitutional change, ultimately concluding that under extreme circumstances targeted violence is justified by the political tradition.  Force, they believe, can be constitutionally used to liberate slaves or defend against private and public acts of violence, inequality, and degradation.  Each group has national aspirations: in the case of John Brown, he hopes his constitutional vision will supplant the tottering slave-holding vision propped up by the High Court; for Imari and Gaidi Obadele, the goal is to convince the U.S. to give up the former slaveholding states so a black republic can be established.

As they await better conditions for revolutionary consolidation, created by themselves or others, they decide to start living out their constitutional principles.  In other words, their constitutions are not simply pieces of paper to be discussed one day if enough people are intrigued.  This shift toward social implementation is somewhat seamless for their respective communities because they espouse a strong dose of what I call “ethical sovereignty”–the notion that true legal authority derives from shared moral beliefs.  They begin to sustain law-based communities despite lacking control of territory and not completing the tasks of authorizing and implementing their constitutions.  In fact, while they see themselves as pursuing strategy # 1, I think both groups at some point transition into a different strategy of constitutional change: modeling an alternative community.  The Republic of New Afrika lasts longer than John Brown’s group, mostly because Brown decided to force the action at Harpers Ferry, and his execution decimates that nascent law-based community.  But New Afrikans are also better at it in that they reach more deeply into the recruitable population.

Once we see that dissenters can use imperfectly authorized constitutions to model alternative communities (let’s now call it strategy # 6), we start to notice other things.  Modeling derives from the same basic principles of popular sovereignty and written constitutionalism.  Modeling can stand alone or supplement any of the other strategies for constitutional change.  Innovative use of state and local laws (not simply national laws and institutions) can facilitate the formation of alternative constitution-based communities (more on this in a future post).  Suddenly, we start to notice a lot more groups of people writing constitutions, for all sorts of reasons and to varying degrees of success.

 

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