Theorizing Constitutional History

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The historical study of American constitutional law has long rested on a conceptual framework that divides the past into linear units of analysis. Constitutional time unfolds according to discrete eras defined by changes in political leadership and governance, whereas constitutional space typically appears divided into bordered jurisdictions and regional sections. Despite the prominence of this conceptual framework, scholars have yet to ask how, why, and to what effect it became the paradigmatic mode of study. In the absence of close study, the framework instead appears as a neutral embodiment of the constitutional order. This essay offers a preliminary sketch of how theories of knowledge production, and particularly Louis Althusser’s theory of law as an ideological apparatus, can help to move beyond this facile assumption. By returning to a selection of landmark judicial opinions and legal treatises from the long nineteenth century and analyzing their discursive practices in relation to the dominant modes of production, this exploratory essay suggests a striking possibility: that the paradigm that we have assumed to be a primordial part of the constitutional order only emerged in its current iteration in the late nineteenth-century shift from a plantation mode of production rooted in enslaved labor to an industrial mode of production rooted in wage labor. As these sources indicate, leading jurists in America’s age of conquest and enslavement regularly analyzed questions of state power and rights by organizing time according to chains of title rooted in dispossession based on race and space according to the geographic circuits of capital. Effective in naturalizing the strict racialized hierarchy integral to the production and circulation of export commodities, this discourse of tethering institutions to the history of property acquisition and the movement of commodities began to shift with the formal abolition of slavery and rise of intensive industrialization, as a new generation of legal academics created a paradigm of institutional time and space that, by erasing material histories of structural inequality, made it possible to reconstitute an old social order redicated on racial classifications of whiteness.


Constitutional Law | Law | Law and Race

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