Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Fall 2007 issue, no. 124.

Remembering Leonard W. Levy

By any imaginable standard, Leonard W. Levy must be considered one of the greatest constitutional historians of the twentieth century. He was extraordinarily prolific, publishing more than forty books and editing what is still the finest encyclopedia on the American Constitution. He also trained a great many doctoral students in constitutional history, first at Brandeis University and later in life at the Claremont Graduate School. But the sheer number of books published or students taught does not convey the heft and intensiveness of the historian and his publications-he was an indefatigable researcher into the sources and a man who wrestled every subject into submission. History was a blood sport for Len.

And those who encountered him were not permitted to forget that Levy had sought truth and found it. Beware, those who thought they had equal access to Clio. The distinguished political scientist Cecelia Kenyon reviewed his great Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side for the New York Review of Books and took issue with several of Levy's strongly negative assertions concerning Jefferson. Two months later the NYRB published his retort, which still singes the electronic page of the journal. Kenyon had written an "outrageously inaccurate and deceiving review of my book" and had "a casual regard for truth," Levy thundered. He constantly reminded us that history was not for the meek. It was not so much that we had to get it right as that we had to understand that history mattered. The establishment of historical truth was our calling as historians.

So far as I can remember, I first met the Great Man at a Mississippi Valley Historical Association conference (yes, it was that long ago) when he commented on the first conference paper I ever delivered. I believe the other paper giver that afternoon was Staughton Lynd. I cannot remember the topics of either of our papers other than that they dealt with some legal aspect of early New York history, but I certainly do remember the thoroughgoing and grim manner in which Len totally devastated my argument. I was terrified and appalled, and my first thought was to flee before this burly man physically assaulted me. But calm returned, and I realized that I had quite a lot to learn from him.

We were professional friends from that time on, especially after I followed his revisionist lead in my own work on the early history of freedom of speech in America. His 1960 book, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History, had transformed our understanding of the politics and law of speech in Britain and America, and it enabled me to take a fresh look at the Zenger trial through Levy's lenses. There was no way to be completely original on any topic that Len had previously dealt with, but I found it oddly satisfying to walk in his large footsteps. And imagine my surprise to discover, only a couple of weeks ago, that he wrote to Bud Bailyn shortly after the publication of my edition of The Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger (1963) to say, "Your Mr. Katz knows his Zenger"! I wish I had known that at the time. Alas for me, however, after Levy moved to California I never saw him again.

Levy was a doctoral student of Henry Steele Commager at Columbia. It could be said that Columbia in those years was the fountainhead of the new constitutional history, for that other titan of the field, Harold Hyman, also worked there with Commager. Levy's dissertation was published in 1957 as The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw, which more or less invented the now-fertile literary form of the biography-legal history and reinterpreted the origins of modern American law. It is a book of dazzling, original scholarship embedded in crystalline prose, as were his best works.

My other favorite in the Levy oeuvre was the aforementioned Jefferson and Civil Liberties. Professor Kenyon was not alone in thinking that Levy had run off the rails, playing fast and loose with historical interpretation in sketching out Jefferson's "darker side." But for me the book was an eye-opener, an attack on filiopietistic cant and a demonstration of what Humeian skepticism could add to historical analysis. I still think the book a tour de force, and it is one of the most teachable works in the early American repertoire.

Most of Levy's early American work came in a series of books on the prehistory of the great clauses of the Constitution. The best of them, I think, is his 1968 Origins of the Fifth Amendment, which is not only a profoundly scholarly book but one deeply engaged with contemporary American political constitutional problems. He also wrote copiously on the religion clauses of the Constitution and learned more about blasphemy than most of us had wanted to know. Over the years Levy dug into the history of the Bill of Rights and took a strong stand on the meaning of "original intent" in all of these works, summing up his views in the 1988 Original Intent and the Framers' Constitution.

Eighty-three years is a long life, and Leonard Levy produced more high-quality constitutional history than most of the rest of us combined, but he was not well in his last years, and I doubt that he had attended a historical meeting for a quarter century or more. So most younger members of the profession will not have met him. They have missed something, for while knowing him was not always a pleasure, it was inevitably intellectually productive. I owe him a lot, and I will miss him.

Stanley N. Katz
Princeton University