Not King Tut’s Tomb, But . . .

I am pleased to announce a discovery that will interest many legal scholars. The Chicago History Museum has a journal that contains Justice Bushrod Washington’s notes on Corfield v. Coryell; the 1823 circuit case that set forth the first major interpretation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution and was an influential source for some members of the Thirty-Ninth Congress in assessing the meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

I am currently researching a biography of Justice Washington and learned that the Chicago History Museum has some relevant materials. The item that immediately drew my attention was a notebook that dates from the 1820s (I need to do more work to give a precise date range). The journal contains drafts of letters, legal research, notes about life at Mount Vernon, and rough versions of at least two of the Justice’s Supreme Court opinions. My eyes opened as wide as saucers, though, when I saw “Corfield v. Coryell” as a heading followed by pages of notes about the case.

What do these notes tell us about Corfield? One revelation is that Washington’s initial view with respect to privileges and immunities was the opposite of what the opinion ended up saying. Corfield concerned a claim that a New Jersey statute barring non-residents from harvesting oysters and clams in state waters was unconstitutional, among other reasons, for violating the Privileges and Immunities Clause by making a distinction between state residents with respect to a privilege. The Court rejected this argument, concluding that no privilege was involved. Washington’s notes on the case, though, say “I am inclined to think that it [in other words, harvesting oysters and clams] is a privilege within the meaning of this article of the Constitution. If it be not, then the right to navigate the waters would not be, because they also are common property, and yet it would seem to violate this article to make a law forbidding citizens of their state to navigate the waters of that state.”

Another significant insight is that Washington’s thinking was shaped by an 1812 New York case, Livingston v. Van Ingen, in which Chancellor Kent discussed the Privileges and Immunities Clause briefly. The notes state that Washington found this case persuasive on the point “that the citizen of each State shall within every other state have equal privileges or rights as the citizens of such state have the words all privileges of citizens being equivalent to equal privileges.” The actual opinion in Corfield, though, does not cite the Livingston case at all.

I will have more to say as I work through other portions of the journal. I will also think about how to make this material available as widely as possible without treading on the interests of the Chicago History Museum. Anyone, of course, can go there and look at the journal.   

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1 Response

  1. Christopher Robbins the Indians says:

    OK, that’s pretty cool, but it still doesn’t beat finding America.