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Gregory Collins, PhD


Political Theory and American Politics

Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke's Political Economy (see "Book" page)

Current project: Burke and the Scottish Enlightenment

My current book manuscript explores the intellectual relationship between Edmund Burke and the Scottish Enlightenment. A commonplace in the study of Burke is to locate his political and social thought in the tradition of Scottish thinkers. Yet as I was researching and writing my manuscript on Burke's economic thought, I noticed that some of his political positions did not accord seamlessly with those of David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and other distinguished Scottish thinkers. I began to wonder whether these incongruities signified trivial differences, or whether they represented deeper philosophical divisions in the two parties' respective thought that warranted greater elucidation.

I realized that the latter possibility was the case. Accordingly, this book manuscript — the first ever to focus primarily on Burke and the Scots — argues that their intellectual relationship contains greater tensions and ambiguities than is commonly assumed, and that Burke's thought reflected a stronger streak of independence than portrayals of his similarities with the Scottish Enlightenment have suggested. Burke held many affinities with Scottish thinkers, including their shared discomfort for rational systems of social organization, but there remained telling differences between them that should make us pause before placing them in the same intellectual school.

These differences emerged from eighteenth-century debates and controversies regarding political economy; the science of morals; aesthetics; political parties; history; sympathy; and religion, all of which I discuss in my manuscript. For example, Burke retained a greater confidence in the truth and power of established religion; and he put forth a stronger defense of political parties as positive features, rather than necessary evils, of constitutional government. Even on the matter of commerce, in which Burke and the Scottish thinkers largely defended the principle of market liberty, Burke harbored a conception of the relation between morals and commerce that departed from the latter's understanding of the causal growth of civilization. By understanding the similarities and differences between Burke's thought and the Scottish Enlightenment, we learn that Burke's political thought is best understood not only as an alternative to the political theory of the French Revolution, but also to the Scottish Enlightenment tradition. For Burke teaches that even moderate conceptions of Enlightenment thought, such as those articulated by Scottish thinkers, are unsustainable without principles and foundations that exceed the limits of Enlightenment political theory.

Next research project: Political Thought, Abolition, and Constitutionalism

In the process of conducting research for my article on Frederick Douglass’ constitutional theory, which was published in American Political Thought in 2017, I came to learn that Douglass was swayed in his reading of the Constitution by a group of constitutional abolitionists, including Lysander Spooner and William Goodell. While Douglass’ shift has received much scholarly attention (see, e.g., Goldstein 1984; Schaub 1994, Schrader 1999, Colaiaco 2006, Finkelman 2016, Blight 2018 and Ives 2018; see also Roberts 2018), the intellectual inspirations behind Douglass’ change in opinion remain an underappreciated subject of inquiry, particularly in the history of American political thought.

Accordingly, there remains an opportunity to probe more deeply into the judicial philosophies of constitutional abolitionists, and explore how they both influenced the development of Douglass’ thoughts on the Constitution and shaped the debate in the 1840s and 1850s over whether the document was pro- or anti-slavery. Thus my research project will be to write a book manuscript on this very debate between constitutional abolitionists—those who believed that slavery was incompatible with the Constitution—and Garrisonian abolitionists—those who believed slavery was compatible with it—in antebellum America and critically assess their philosophical and textualist arguments.

For instance, according to Spooner, the most important legal rule of interpretation was that “all language must be construed ‘strictly’ in favor of natural right” (Spooner 1847, 17-18). This conception of natural right was based on the premise that “man has an inalienable right to so much personal liberty as he will use without invading the rights of others” (Spooner 1847, 20n). Such comments demonstrate Spooner’s firm assent to traditional conceptions of natural law and natural rights theory, for he maintained that the legitimacy of legislation derived from both the people’s consent to grant the government lawmaking powers and from the moral content of the laws themselves. Spooner integrated these principles of his political thought with his presumption-of-liberty argument: if there does happen to be a trace of lingering ambiguity in the word or phrase of a constitutional provision, its meaning must be given an innocent interpretation.

In regard to Spooner’s specific mode of exegesis, two general rules guided his approach: first, the meaning of textual provisions should be interpreted consistent with their original public understanding, as generally understood by the people at large, rather than consistent with the private motivations of their drafters; and second, this public understanding must look to the conventional definitions of the words at the time of ratification—once again, as understood by the public—and must not rely on additional historical evidence to uncover their meaning. This latter rule would be a shield against the temptation, as indicated in the prior rule, to apprehend constitutional meaning based on the inner desires of the document’s drafters.

My book project will then place Spooner’s and Goodell’s constitutional theory in conversation with Garrisonian abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, who believed that the Constitution sanctioned slavery. I will investigate how Phillips used James Madison’s Constitutional Convention debate notes to show that the private intent of particular framers was to affirm the constitutional legitimacy of slavery, and discuss why Spooner and Goodell rejected the use of these notes as an authoritative source to inform constitutional interpretation. I will further examine how Frederick Douglass exhibited great care in blending constitutional abolitionists’ arguments about the antislavery nature of the Constitution with his broader beliefs about liberty, justice, and the history of race relations in the United States.

Given such considerations, my book will take note of the imperfections of the jurisprudential arguments posed by such constitutional abolitionists themselves. Much of their reasoning carried force, but they still stand guilty of relying excessively on the narrow interpretation of words and selectively using historical information and quotations from judicial opinions to reinforce their interpretive conclusions. Wendell Phillips’ response to Spooner’s arguments, Review of Lysander Spooner’s Essay on the Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1847), for instance, offered some of the most powerful rebuttals of Spooner’s exegetical methods. In the end, both Spooner and Phillips were not immune from employing instrumental constitutional reasoning to serve their respective political aims (see Cover 1975, 154).

This book project also seeks to demonstrate how the arguments put forth during this key antebellum debate over the Constitution have influenced constitutional interpretation to this day. For example, Spooner’s and Goodell’s exposure of the limits of constitutional interpretation based on private intent in many ways anticipated the great difficulties of originalist interpretation emphasized in the 1980s by Paul Brest (1980), H. Jefferson Powell (1985), Robert Bennett (1984), the latter of whom invoked the “summing” problem to highlight what Spooner and Goodell had drawn attention to over a century prior: how can one determine the original private intention of the Constitution when its drafters harbored a mixed mass of subjective motivations, intentions, and goals, based on their varying political ideologies, geographical bases, economic interests, and other considerations?

In addition, one can draw a line from constitutional abolitionists’ constitutional theory and presumption-of-liberty thesis to the modern legal movement advocating for “judicial engagement” of laws that impede individual liberty (see Barnett 1997; Barnett 2012; Epstein 2012; Barnett 2013). Although there remain important differences among scholars in the New Originalist movement, they value particular tenets of textual exegesis that bear an intriguing resemblance to those proposed by Spooner and Goodell (see Collins 2017). Even more, the emphasis in legal scholarship the past few decades on returning power to ordinary citizens, rather than preserving power in judges, as authorities of constitutional interpretation contains a strong echo of Spooner’s brand of popular constitutionalism, as Helen Knowles observes (2013, 533). In the end, this book project will seek to sharpen public discourse over race and American politics by exploring how varying constitutional theories reflect deeper assumptions about the proper role of constitutional law in promoting the cause of liberty.