Who Cares How Madison and Hamilton Defined “Corruption”?

We’ve had a few posts in recent weeks on Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout’s ultimately unsuccessful, but surprisingly effective, campaign for the New York governorship (see here and here). Teachout’s campaign has had the side effect of increasing the attention to her scholarly work, most notably her recent book Corruption in America.  Rick has already posted a more general discussion of Teachout’s major thesis regarding the allegedly corrupting effects of money on American democracy (and a follow-up yesterday). I want to touch on a somewhat narrower point, but one that has attracted a great deal of attention: Teachout’s claim that the people who framed and ratified the U.S. Constitution had a much broader understanding of the meaning of “corruption” than is reflected in contemporary U.S. Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance. (I should acknowledge up front that I have not yet had the opportunity to read Teachout’s book, though I have read her earlier article making substantially the same point, as well as an excerpt from the book posted online.)

The basic argument, which Teachout persuasively documents, is that for the founding generation — including leading members like James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, and others — the term “corruption” had a much broader meaning than the exchange of money or other material benefits for official acts; the term instead included an institution’s “improper dependence” on some outside party. My colleague Larry Lessig made this argument the basis of an amicus brief he submitted to the Supreme Court in the McCutcheon case. In his post discussing the brief, Lessig asserts that the evidence of how the term corruption was used in the Founding generation “suggest that only a non-originalist could support the idea that ‘corruption’ refers to ‘quid pro quo’ corruption alone.”

I’m not sure I can improve on Jill Lapore‘s assessment of Teachout and Lessig’s evidence about the historical usage of corruption: “This isn’t uninteresting, but it’s not especially helpful, either.” I agree wholeheartedly. At the risk of belaboring the issue (about which I’ve written before, in the context of the McCutcheon case), let me say a bit more about why I think the evidence that Madison, Hamilton, and other members of the Founding generation used “corruption” in a broader sense is (mostly) irrelevant to contemporary discussions of campaign finance and other issues. Continue reading