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The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution

John W. Compton

ISBN 9780674726796

Publication date: 03/17/2014

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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.

    —Jack Balkin, Balkinization


  • 2015, Winner of the William Nelson Cromwell Book Prize


  • John W. Compton is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Chapman University.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press