Constitutional Principles and America's Original Sin

James E. Fleming & Linda C. McClain Constitution Day Lecture

For the inaugural James E. Fleming & Linda C. McClain Constitution Day Lecture, University of Texas at Austin Professor of Government Gary Jacobsohn will give a talk on “American Constitutional Principles and Original Sin: A Comparative Perspective,” tracing connections between U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence over time and the influence of slavery on the American founding (see abstract below). The talk is free and open to the public and will be held on September 17, 2018, at 5:30pm in Jesse Hall 410.

Bookending Constitution Week programming will be a September 21 lecture (3:30pm, Jesse Hall 410) by University of Kentucky historian Jane Calvert on “Human Rights at the American Founding: The Unexpected Contributions of John Dickinson.”


The United States is perhaps the most frequently cited example of a nation constituted by its constitutional principles. Through a comparative inquiry, however, it becomes clear that the importance of these principles for the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has been vastly over-stated. When contrasted with the ways in which foundational constitutional principles function elsewhere—for example, in Germany and India—their limited reach in American constitutional jurisprudence is striking.  The Court’s less resolute and more equivocal reliance upon constitutional principles in the U.S. is traceable to the compromised circumstances and tension of the American founding with respect to its original sin of slavery.


Gary Jacobsohn received his B.A. from City College of New York and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University, and he currently serves as Professor of Government and Malcolm Macdonald Professor in Constitutional and Comparative Law at University of Texas at Austin. His interests and work lie at the intersection of constitutional theory and comparative constitutionalism, and his publications include Pragmatism, Statesmanship, and the Supreme Court (Cornell University Press, 1977); The Supreme Court and the Decline of Constitutional Aspiration (Rowman and Littlefield, 1986); Apple of Gold: Constitutionalism in Israel and the United States (Princeton University Press, 1993); The Wheel of Law: India’s Secularism in Comparative Constitutional Context (Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press-India); and Constitutional Identity (Harvard University Press, 2010). He is also co-author, with Donald Kommers and John Finn, of American Constitutional Law: Essays, Cases, and Comparative Notes (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), and co-editor, with Miguel Schor, of Comparative Constitutional Theory (Elgar Press, 2018). He has held fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Fulbright Foundation, and the NEH; is a past President of the New England Political Science Association and former co-editor of the Rowman and Littlefield series on Studies in American Constitutionalism; and was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government at Williams College, prior to joining the faculty at Texas.