Really Cool Stuff: Digital Searches into the Constitutional Period
CJohnson at law.utexas.edu
Tue Apr 14 13:16:16 PDT 2009
This is a link, in lieu of reprint to Calvin Johnson, Really Cool Stuff: Digital Searches into the Constitutional Period, 25 Const. Commentary 51 (Spring 2008, but just out): http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/calvinjohnson/really-cool-stuff.pdf.
It is becoming considerably easier to find and organize the documents that have survived from the period of the adoption of our Constitution by electronic searches into digital archives. Research that once took years to accomplish can be pulled together in hours, sometimes even minutes. This paper has an inventory of what is available, first created for a 2004 panel. It is also an interim report on how the digital revolution is affecting the history of the period, without however attempting to forecast the full impact of the new search technology on constitutional history.
Two generations ago, a serious historian of the constitutional period had to visit dozens of small archives spread along the east coast, from Portsmouth to Savannah. Forrest McDonald says he put 100,000 miles on his car when he got started. You had to be working on your dissertation to do this research, and only once in your lifetime, because the work was otherwise not quite worth it. You also had to be a professional. Now you can collect 35 good quotes from letters, newspapers, or ratification debates in an hour and get the quotes and citations right by the copy function, without ever lifting your pen. You can take notes by boiling down three paragraphs of original text.
The digital revolution means that you can cast out your net and find a full catch. You can second guess the secondary literature quickly, whereas once you had to rely on somebody else who had put in all the archival work. You can try new theories that you think up in the middle of the night. You can revisit the same issues and check on yourself and others against the surviving documents of the constitutional period. Scholars once had to generalize from one letter, and the other 34 add perspective.
You can find beautiful quotes in minutes, much like calling upon the ghosts from the dead to testify on your behalf. I had been arguing with Bruce Ackerman and my side of the argument was that the power to lay direct or dry land taxes was the key issue of the ratification debate. For the proponents the first purpose of the Constitution was to restore the federal credit so we could borrow in the coming war, by keeping up payments on the Dutch debt. The major issue, uncompromisable on both sides was federal power over direct or internal taxes. No Anti-federalist would concede federal direct taxes. My first search of the Virginia on line archive of George Washington’s papers produced this wonderful explanation of what the ratification debate was about in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in August, 1788:
“For myself, … there are scarcely any of the [Anti-Federalists’] amendments … to which I have much objection, except that which goes to the prevention of direct taxation; and that, I presume, will be more strenuously advocated and insisted upon … than any other.
Washington went on to say that he had expected that the new government would “do justice to the public creditors and retrieve the National character. But if no means are to be employed but requisitions, that expectation was vain and we may as well recur to the old Confoederation.” George Washington was telling Jefferson that the Constitution was about getting the war debts paid and that giving the new federal government power over direct, internal taxes was the key contested issue. The letter is not in the secondary literature as far as I can tell .
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Conlawprof