Corwin, Edward S. (1878–1963)

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CORWIN, EDWARD S. (1878–1963)

Edward S. Corwin, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, succeeded the nineteenth-century titans James Kent, Joseph Story, and thomas m. cooley. Corwin's understanding of constitutional and political thought distinguished him from these lawyers and judges, who exemplified Edmund Burke's maxim that the study of law sharpens the mind by narrowing it. Matchless learning in government and history made him an eminent commentator on the constitution.

Corwin's Liberty against Government (1948) was a major defense of liberty as the fundamental American principle. The Twilight of the Supreme Court (1934) upheld the new deal with an idea of national power that left presidential and congressional power without statable limits. Corwin later more persuasively and moderately pondered the New Deal's extension of governmental power in relationship to the Founders' intention. In united states v. darby (1941) Chief Justice harlan fiske stone had cited Chief Justice john marshall's definition of congressional power over interstate commerce in gibbons v. ogden (1824) and Marshall's interpretation of necessary and proper in mcculloch v. maryland (1819). Corwin persuasively denied that Marshall would have consented to be "thus conscripted in the service of the New Deal": "Liberty, the spacious liberty of an expanding nation, not social equality, was the lodestar of his political philosophy." Corwin's bow to the "great Chief Justice" Marshall showed that Corwin, too, championed liberty.

Public law, said Corwin, is the "law that governs government itself"; political theory is the branch that explains the moral source of the law's authority. Corwin identified his topics and accomplishments in public law as the origins and development of the idea of liberty against government, "the most important theme of American constitutional legal history"; judicial review in historical perspective; dual federalism; and the Presidency.

The Constitution and What It Means Today (1920, 1958), his best known work, combined scholarship and simplicity. Popular education for Corwin kept the Constitution from becoming a "craft mystery," whether one of bench and bar or of behaviorism. Corwin's most important work was The President: Office and Powers (1957), which concluded that the autonomous and self-directing idea of the Presidency had triumphed. Decades before the watergate crimes he prophetically challenged the excesses of presidential power with the idea of liberty against government. The most important condition of the people's moderation in liberty was religious instruction. Corwin's Constitution of Powers in a Secular State (1951) opposed Supreme Court decisions against religious instruction in the public schools, arguing that the American people understand democracy as a system of ethical principles "grounded in religion." Hence, religion in effect should habituate Americans to virtue; virtue should guide the use of liberty.

Corwin's preeminence arose in part from his emphasis on fundamentals, restoration of natural law, explanations of doctrine, grasp of the perennial themes of American politics and history, and understanding of the enduring principles that prop the Constitution. In teaching future scholars, Corwin had, according to Alpheus T. Mason, the gift "of reaching within each person, of discovering something firm and worthwhile, of encouraging him to stand on it." As Corwin himself put it, "a noble emulation is the true source of excellence."

Richard Loss


Loss, Richard 1977 Edward S. Corwin: The Constitution of the Dominant Presidency. Presidential Studies Quarterly 7: 53–65.

——, ed. 1981 Corwin on the Constitution, Volume I, The Foundations of American Constitutional and Political Thought, the Powers of Congress, and the President's Power of Removal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Stevens, Richard G. 1980 The Constitution and What It Meant to Corwin. Political Science Reviewer 10:1–53.