Washington International Law Journal


This article recovers a lost episode in the neglected early history of comparative constitutionalism in the United States. In 1913, pioneering comparative lawyer Frank Goodnow went to China to assist the new Chinese Republic in the writing of its first constitution. Goodnow’s mission reflected the growing interest of the United States in China’s legal development in this era, and his constitution-writing project won broad support from the U.S. legal profession. Goodnow’s tenure ultimately generated great controversy when he advised China’s leaders to adopt a constitutional monarchy rather than continue on as a republic. This article describes this controversy and how the international engagement of the United States was increasingly shaped in the early twentieth century by the attempted export of U.S. legal models as a presumptively altruistic mechanism of modernization. Goodnow’s allegiance to comparative legal science agitated against this more parochial view of legal internationalism, and in the end he was excommunicated from U.S. foreign policy affairs. More broadly, this article shows how the early history of comparative constitutionalism in the United States had its roots in the early twentieth century discourse on colonial administration. Goodnow and other U.S. lawyers of the era turned to indirect engagements with foreign legal reform only after the popular rejection of colonialism that had been constitutionally sanctioned by the now infamous Insular Cases. This article further argues that these colonial roots and Goodnow’s feckless misadventure in China hold key lessons for today’s comparative constitutionalists. It provides a vivid example of how the technocratic illusion of engaging in depoliticized legal reform abroad is self-defeating and untenable. Further, it warns against the inherent tensions between a methodologically coherent comparative law and the desire to export U.S. constitutional models abroad, and how such tensions can undercut clear-sighted understanding of foreign legal developments.

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