The New Deal is often said to represent a sea change in American constitutional history, overturning a century of precedent to permit an expanded federal government, increased regulation of the economy, and eroded property protections. John Compton offers a surprising revision of this familiar narrative, showing that nineteenth-century evangelical Protestants, not New Deal reformers, paved the way for the most important constitutional developments of the twentieth century.
Following the great religious revivals of the early 1800s, American evangelicals embarked on a crusade to eradicate immorality from national life by destroying the property that made it possible. Their cause represented a direct challenge to founding-era legal protections of sinful practices such as slavery, lottery gambling, and buying and selling liquor. Although evangelicals urged the judiciary to bend the rules of constitutional adjudication on behalf of moral reform, antebellum judges usually resisted their overtures. But after the Civil War, American jurists increasingly acquiesced in the destruction of property on moral grounds.
In the early twentieth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes and other critics of laissez-faire constitutionalism used the judiciary’s acceptance of evangelical moral values to demonstrate that conceptions of property rights and federalism were fluid, socially constructed, and subject to modification by democratic majorities. The result was a progressive constitutional regime—rooted in evangelical Protestantism—that would hold sway for the rest of the twentieth century.
I'm going to be very interested in two things. First, how the Transcendentalists (and to a lesser extent Unitarians) fit into this -- they, too, have a fluid sense of the Constitution and yet we don't generally think of them as evangelical. Second, whether this is an instance of biblical interpretation correlating with (and perhaps driving) constitutional interpretation independent of its relationship to property. That is, I see a lot of antislavery religious thought as having a fairly non-originalist bent. Francis Wayland, for instance, had an evolving sense of what was prohibited by Christianity. This is independent of his critique of property. I wonder if those ideas about evolution of religious doctrine are more directly related to the evolving constitutional thought than the evangelical critique of property per se. But I'm very excited to see this book. It looks fabulous.
On further reflection, I'll also be interested in putting this book in conversation with William Nelson's article from forty years back on "The Impact of the Antislavery Movement upon Styles of Judicial Reasoning in Nineteenth Century America." That's an article I've spent a lot of time with -- but rather long ago. Obviously Compton will be skeptical of Nelson's argument that antislavery thought led to post-war formalism.