The U.S. Constitution is old, relatively brief, and very difficult to amend. In its original form, the Constitution was primarily a framework for a new national government, and for 230 years the national government has operated under that framework even as conditions have changed in ways beyond the Founders’ conceivable imaginations. The framework has survived in no small part because government institutions have themselves played an important role in helping to fill in and clarify the framework through their practices and interactions, informed by the realities of governance. Courts, the political branches, and academic commentators commonly give weight to such post-Founding governmental practice in discerning the Constitution’s separation of powers. That approach has been referred to as the “historical gloss” method of constitutional interpretation, based on language that Justice Frankfurter used to describe the concept in his concurrence in the Youngstown steel seizure case. Some originalist commentators, however, have advanced a potentially competing approach to crediting post-Founding practice, which they refer to as “liquidation,” an idea that they ascribe to James Madison and certain other members of the Founding generation.
To date, there has not been any systematic effort to compare gloss and liquidation, even though the differences between them bear on the constitutionality of a range of governmental practices relating to both domestic and foreign affairs in the fields of constitutional law and federal courts. This Article fills that gap in the literature. We first provide an account of what must be shown in order to establish historical gloss. Our account focuses on longstanding governmental practices that have proven to be stable—that is, practices that have operated for a significant amount of time without generating continued inter-branch contestation. We then consider the extent to which the liquidation concept differs from that of gloss and whether those differences render liquidation more or less normatively attractive than gloss. We argue that a narrow account of liquidation, offered by Professor Caleb Nelson, most clearly distinguishes liquidation from gloss, but that it does so in ways that are normatively problematic. We further argue that a broader account of liquidation, recently offered by Professor William Baude, responds to those normative concerns by diminishing the distinction between liquidation and gloss, but that significant differences remain that continue to raise normative problems for liquidation. Finally, we question whether either scholar’s account of liquidation is properly attributed to Madison.
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