Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Leonard Levy, RIP

On a more somber note, the New York Times obituary page brings the sad news that the great constitutional historian Leonard Levy has died at the age of 83. Levy was one of the towering figures at Claremont in the 1970s and 1980s when many us were doing our degrees there. As the Times explains him:

He was also an active participant in Reagan-era debates over a mode of constitutional interpretation known as originalism, popularized by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Judge Robert H. Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated in 1987. Originalism looks to the text and original understanding of the Constitution as the only sure guide to its meaning.

Professor Levy called that approach a disservice to the grand, open-textured phrases in the Constitution, formulations that he said required fresh interpretation by each new generation. “The framers,” he wrote, “had a genius for studied imprecision.”

There was much more to the story than that. Although a New Deal liberal, he admitted to having voted for Reagan in 1980 (though not in 1984). He was also very friendly to conservatives at the graduate school, and took our side in academic battles against political correctness and academic trendiness, because he came to see that his very best students were the conservatives who came to Claremont to study political philosophy, but who saw that there was much from political philosophy to be applied and dilated in his rigorous courses on constitutional questions. A Levy seminar or one-on-one tutorial (I did both) was an experience that must be much like military boot camp--painful, demanding, terrifying, exhausting, and something that afterward you would never have wanted to miss. In a Levy course, you weren’t just questioned; you were cross-examined. It was often not a pretty sight. But it made everyone better thinkers, writers, and scholars.

In the aftermath of his book attacking the Bork view of "original intent,", Levy revised his views to some extent, becoming more friendly toward our view that constitutional originalism is not matter of textual exegesis (as it is for Scalia), but is a matter or absorbing, as Lincoln showed, the philosophical understanding of the principles of the Founding. He also developed some libertarian leanings on property rights, which led to A License to Steal, a ringing attack on the dubious and often corrupt practice of civil asset forfeiture.

There are only a few geuninely great teachers like Levy. Now there is sadly one fewer among us.

Discussions - 1 Comment

Lovely. I knew him only as a reader, but some of what you describe comes through even so.

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