This Symposium Essay asks what a largely forgotten conflict over habeas corpus and martial law in mid-eighteenth-century New York can tell us about originalist methods of constitutional interpretation. The episode, which involved Abraham Yates, Jr.—later a prominent Antifederalist—as well as Lord Loudoun, the commander of the British forces in America, and New York Acting Governor James De Lancey, furnishes insights into debates about martial law prior to the Founding and indicates that they may have bearing on originalist interpretations of the Suspension Clause. It also demonstrates how the British imperial context in which the American colonies were situated shaped discussions about rights in ways that originalism should address. In particular, colonists argued with colonial officials both explicitly and implicitly about the extent to which statutes as well as common law applied in the colonies. These contested statutory schemes should affect how we understand constitutional provisions: for example, they might suggest that statutes pertaining to martial law should be added to those treating habeas corpus as a backdrop against which to interpret the Suspension Clause. Furthermore, the conflict showed the significance to members of the Founding generation of the personnel applying law, whether military or civilian, rather than the substantive law applied; this emphasis could also be significant for how we interpret constitutional rights.
Originalism and a Forgotten Conflict over Martial Law,
Nw. U. L. Rev.