Constitutionalization as Statecraft: Vagrant Nation and the Modern American State

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This essay showcases the contribution of Risa Goluboff's Vagrant Nation (2016) to one field of scholarship that the book scarcely mentions: the historical literature on the American state. In Goluboff's account of the fall of the “vagrancy law regime” in the “long 1960s” I see vital questions about the nature of the modern American state and the endurance of older, seemingly antithetical modes of governance. Given the trends that state-focused scholars have illuminated—for example, toward centralization of power and the protection of individual rights—what allowed for vague, locally enforced vagrancy laws to survive so late into the twentieth century? What ultimately triggered their demise? In mining Vagrant Nation for answers, this essay also urges scholars to contemplate “constitutionalization” as a form of statecraft. In giving a constitutional law framing to the grievances of “vagrants,” federal courts reinforced key tenets of the modern American state, including the supremacy of national law over competing legal orders and the desirability of being a rights-bearing member of the nation-state. Simultaneously, these court decisions left open other, more “modern” possibilities for regulating the kinds of people (poor, nonwhite, unpopular) whom vagrancy laws once ensnared.


vagrancy, review

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Law & Social Inquiry