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.
John W. Compton’s The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution is an outstanding addition to the literature on American constitutional development. The book argues that the progressive critique of the Constitution in the early twentieth century that led to the New Deal was presaged and to some extent made possible by earlier social movements of evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century who sought to ban alcohol and lotteries. The idea that the Constitution’s practical meaning must adjust to changing social conditions is often associated with the progressive critique of the 1920s and 1930s. But Compton shows that evangelicals made similar moves decades before in order to reshape constitutional understandings and justify government power to ban alcohol and lottery sales… He shines new light on the history of American constitutional development. He does a tremendous service in recalling cases and debates that were once very important to constitutional theory but are no longer… The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution is a truly valuable book that greatly enhances our understanding of the development of constitutional law in the nineteenth century. After reading this book, and grasping its lessons, you will not be able to teach the basic Constitutional Law course the same way again. That is not true of many books, and it is a mark of its excellence and its importance.
[An] intriguing history of morals legislation and American constitutional history… Compton rightly points out that many of the classic histories of American law treat the 19th-century courts as consistently moralistic, without appreciating the dramatic shift that took place in judicial doctrine and the awkward tension this created with earlier cases. He has exposed a remarkable sequence of developments in American constitutional history… Compton rightly draws attention to the role that the morals cases played in the emergence of the living Constitution.
Compton’s history is compelling… This is a fascinating book that sheds much light on how our views on the proper scope of government have changed—for the worse.
John Compton’s superb book provides a fascinating account of the influence that evangelical attempts to stamp out drinking and lotteries had on American constitutional development. That, in itself, is worth the price of admission.
The book’s clear, forcibly argued, and original thesis challenges some of the most influential scholarship in its field.
As scholars and pundits debate whether the New Deal order is coming to an end, questions about its inception are particularly timely, and the author’s engagement with the question of how morals can influence constitutional politics is quite salient at this time.
- 2015, Winner of the William Nelson Cromwell Book Prize
- 272 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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