On liberty and the Fourteenth Amendment: The original understanding of the Lockean Natural Rights Guarantees

Steven G. Calabresi, Sofía M. Vickery

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2 Scopus citations

Abstract

The debate as to what unenumerated rights, if any, are protected by the Constitution is directly relevant to the most controversial issues in constitutional law today—from gay marriage, to gun-control measures, to substance-control regulation, to specific personal liberties, and finally to property regulation, to name just a few. Much of the unenumerated rights debate centers on the U.S. Supreme Court’s substantive Due Process Clause case law interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment. These cases address the question of which specific rights are implicated by the protection of life, liberty, and property in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have written or joined opinions that argue that the answer to this question can be found by looking for rights that are deeply rooted in American history and tradition at the most specific level of generality available. State constitutional case law from 1776 up to 1868 is thus potentially of great relevance to understanding American history and tradition because by 1868, the year the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, two-thirds of the existing state constitutions contained what we refer to as “Lockean Natural Rights Guarantees,” provisions protecting life, liberty, and property and guaranteeing inalienable, natural, or inherent rights of an unenumerated rights type. In this Article, we identify and exhaustively analyze nearly a century of state case law from the time of the Founding until 1868, in which state courts interpret and apply state constitutional Lockean Natural Rights Guarantees to an enormous variety of issues. From this robust body of state constitutional case law, we conclude that the Lockean Natural Rights Guarantees in most state constitutions had great significance with respect to the abolition of slavery and the extension of civil and political rights to individuals and minority-group members living in the northern states. At the same time, with respect to property regulation, state courts struggled to give concrete meaning to the Lockean Natural Rights Guarantees in their state constitutions, and while not discounting the possibility that some regulations could violate the Guarantees, the state courts generally deferred to the legislature. This evidence suggests that “liberty,” in the context of the Fourteenth Amendment, is best understood broadly to encompass natural rights and to require that civil and political rights be extended to minorities, a finding of particular relevance to the debate on gay marriage. However, the range of issues potentially implicated by the Lockean Natural Rights Guarantees and inconsistent rulings in many areas also suggest that determining which specific rights are implicated by the protection of liberty posed the same challenge to state courts between 1776 and 1868 that present courts face today, and that the quest to identify unenumerated rights that are deeply rooted in American history and tradition is itself somewhat quixotic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1299-1452
Number of pages154
JournalTexas Law Review
Volume93
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law

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