In the New York Times, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz: Obama and the Debt (arguing that refusing to raise the debt ceiling “would violate [a] ‘fundamental principle’ of the Constitution” and that the President “in times of national crisis, can invoke emergency power to protect the Constitution” by, in this case, borrowing on his own authority.)
(Thanks to Michael Perry for the pointer).
I have some comments, none of them complimentary. So I’ll start by saying that Professor Wilentz is a great historian and everyone should, at minimum, read his Bancroft-award-winning The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, 2006).
Now for the comments:
1. Wilentz asserts the meaning of Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, chiefly by looking at drafting and ratifying history, prominently quoting Republican leader Benjamin Wade, and referring to the beliefs and motivations of other principal drafters. In sum, this is the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Apparently Sean Wilentz is an originalist!
But wait, I thought historians denied the very foundations of originalism, claiming that history cannot be used to establish fixed meanings. Is there actually some deep split among leading historians regarding the use of history? (See alsohere, in which the great historian Joseph Ellis appears certain of the historical meaning of the Second Amendment). Or do historians’ doubts about the coherence of originalism only apply when it’s done by law professors, or by conservatives?
2. Professor Wilentz’s history doesn’t show what he thinks it shows.Details