22 March 2014

Paul Finkelman Pays A Visit

On Friday several of my colleagues and I had the delightful time listening to Paul Finkelman talk about his latest (and yet unpublished) article Frederick Douglass' Constitution. Finkelman is a real historian who happens to teach at Albany Law School. He is an expert on the Founding period and beyond. During the course of the colloquium it became clear he has read everything on either side of the Constitution from the official minutes, to Madison's notes, to the notes of other, less well-known participants, and the correspondence addressing ratification of the Constitution.

Finkelman's thesis was to describe the change of attitude of Frederick Douglass from one who could rightfully be understood to believe the original Constitution was a "pact with the devil" to one who as a leading abolitionist later used constitutional rhetoric to undermine the pro-slavery constitutional text.

Although he didn't use the expression, I take Finkeman to be addressing what has come to be known as "popular constitutionalism." Popular constitutionalism treats the popular understanding of the meaning of the Constitution as every bit as important as its "official" meaning as pronounced by the Supreme Court. The Constitution as applied by regular folks and not only the elites. As I would put it, the ends to which the Constitution is put need not be subsumed in its original meaning. Or, in theological terms, application and exegesis aren't the same thing.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the colloquium were the various rabbit trails into which we found ourselves wandering. All in all, a great way to spend a morning.

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