During moments of national discord, Americans are supposed to rely on our founding documents for guidance. Since the documents lack a certain emotional resonance, this often drifts into a search for insight about the intentions of their authors. Whether we call them the “founding fathers” or, less patriarchally, the framers of the Constitution, these illustrious men, we imagine, could give us authoritative answers to the questions of our times—if only they were not dead.
In its search for a Supreme Court nominee, the Trump administration scoured high and low for a perfect medium to channel the dead Justice Antonin Scalia. This approach was fitting, since Scalia devoted his decades on the bench to channeling the thoughts of the dead framers, and to propagating the doctrine of “originalism” among right-leaning jurists. Neil Gorsuch’s close-cropped grey hair and mildly craggy face fits a recognizable pattern among men this administration has paraded before American citizens as models of conservative governing competency: rigidly wholesome in matters personal, rigidly reactionary in matters of policy. This polished yet slightly undead facade offers a slate so blank it seems plausible that the words of illustrious colonial-era white men might appear on its surface.
Were such words to appear, it would not be an unprecedented phenomenon. Throughout the nineteenth century, the words of the founding fathers were manifested on actual slates, in séances conducted by spiritualist mediums like Andrew Jackson Davis, Kate and Maggie Fox, and Emma Hardings Britten. Spiritualists, to be fair, were a motlier bunch than Scalia’s polished acolytes. Henry James classed them among the “roaring radicals”—suffragists, abolitionists, freethinkers, temperance crusaders—who demanded a wholesale transformation of society. These often-overlapping groups made their demands loudly and publicly, and they flouted the rules of propriety, letting women speak from podiums about the oppression of marriage and the need for “free love.” James, a close observer of manners, found the whole scene distasteful: in his novel The Bostonians, that city’s feminist community is led by a “confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman” whose followers are “all witches and wizards, mediums and spirit-rappers.”
Spiritualists took a more generous view of the reform crowd’s omnivorous agenda. Though the causes didn’t all line up, they agreed on the urgent need for social and political change to advance human welfare—especially in the case of slavery. They had an unfair advantage in that their critics often became passionate supporters once they died and reached the spirit world. “I regret the government was formed with such an element in it; so filled with wretchedness, misery, cruelty, debauchery and every wickedness,” said George Washington in 1852, more than a half century after his death, through the spiritualist medium Isaac Post. “I see that it is utterly impossible for Slavery and Liberty, for a great length of time to continue together.” Also speaking through Post, Quaker leader Elias Hicks bemoaned, “I should have labored zealously with the advocates of those Reforms … instead of condemning them for their inconsistencies.”
It might seem unscrupulous, or at least baldly anachronistic, to channel the dead and overwrite their old positions with more modern ones. But many spiritualists sincerely believed that souls persisting in the spirit world continued to observe and intervene in mortal affairs, offering continuity in uncertain times. Further, they saw death as the beginning of a transformation that naturally precipitated new insights about how to achieve a good and just society. Beloved individuals, whether intimate family members or national heroes, would surely relinquish regressive notions that reflected poorly on their character.
Since the 1980s, the concept of originalism—that judges must search out the intentions or meanings of the Constitution’s authors and apply those intentions or meanings unwaveringly to the modern world—has become a rallying point for conservatives. They pit their favored approach against the “judicial activism” of left-leaning judges, who regard the Constitution as a “living document.” As Scalia famously put it, “The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living but dead, or as I prefer to call it, enduring.”
Textbooks quote this sound bite as if it offers a pithy summary of originalist philosophy. However, as Judge William H. Rehnquist complained about the “living Constitution,” the notion of aliveness or deadness “has about it a teasing imprecision.” Lacking either a body or a soul, how can a text die at all? And what does it mean for it to be dead but “enduring”? When a person dies, unless they are cryogenically frozen, their body continues to change, breaking down and persisting in new material forms. We may say that their “spirit” endures, which could mean that it remains in dialogue with the living. Either way, to “endure” is hardly a passive activity. Scalia’s formulation places the nation’s founding document, and by proxy, its authors, in a strange unacknowledged afterlife.
As the conflict over slavery neared a breaking point in the mid-nineteenth century, its defenders held up George Washington, national hero and slaveholder, as an exemplar of the institution’s virtue. However, Washington’s spirit spoke, incessantly and persistently, through countless mediums, repenting his use of human chattel. “I have left the spirit that could make merchandise of my brethren far behind,” Washington declared through Post. According to spiritualists, Washington had rejoined his old comrades to conduct statecraft from beyond the grave. From their cosmic vantage in the spirit world, “Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Patrick Henry all spoke, in the most positive terms, that there could be no compromise or concessions,” claimed another medium, Thomas Richmond. Contrary to the letter of the law as the founders wrote it, they now felt that “the crisis had come, and Slavery must be abolished!”
Spiritualists maintained that everyone would have a chance at “spiritual improvement” after death. The mechanism and the goal of this improvement was sympathy: a receptive emotional state that allowed living mediums to commune with and pursue harmony in the spirit world. The dead generally reported that they had shed their selfish, individualistic motives and progressed towards a benevolent and egalitarian worldview. In the afterlife, Washington reported, wealth and whiteness had won him no privileges: “We are on an equality here … he that had enslaved his fellow man, was on a level with the enslaved.”
Since Washington freed his slaves in his will, there were reasonable grounds for inferring that he may have questioned the institution. Other founders left similar hints: for instance, James Madison refused to include a right to “property in men” among the Constitution’s guarantees. But spiritualist mediums also obtained more improbable conversions. During his life, John C. Calhoun, Vice President under Andrew Jackson and an ardent defender of slavery, had, according to the message channeled by Post, worked to “promote the stability, the unity and the harmony of the government to continue it on the same ground, that those worthies that formed the Constitution intended.” Communicating through Post, Calhoun described feeling “surprise as well as remorse” when he arrived in the spirit world to hear, from their own spirit mouths, that Washington, Jefferson and many of their colleagues had always planned to “set bounds to Slavery, with a hope of its extermination at no distant day, for they in secret loathed liberty for themselves while imposing Slavery on others.” Seemingly betrayed by his own literalism, Calhoun bemoaned the “the delusion with which my mind had been filled.”
One might suspect at this point that spiritualist mediums were manipulating the purported voices of Washington, Jefferson, et al., for their own rather transparent political purposes. Early adopters of spiritualism, like Isaac Post and his wife, Amy Post, were Quakers who had long opposed all forms of oppression. And many, including leaders of the Seneca Falls convention such as Lucy Coleman and Catherine Ann Fish Stebbins, were already active in the abolition and suffrage causes before discovering Spiritualism. As a public relations tactic, mediumship created a sensational spectacle with greater mass appeal than dry political tracts.
This suspicion, however, disregards the kaleidoscopic sectarian context of the period, as well as the critical capacity of believers. Spiritualism was a religious practice—as in other faiths, its followers sometimes engaged in conscious deception or unconscious self-delusion, while others developed ways to detect malfeasance. And as in most other faiths, its followers interpreted or directly communed with their divinities. Spiritualists, rather uniquely, considered every human soul to be available for consultation. This met a demand characteristic of their historical moment, for useful, direct answers to personal and political questions. Tired of clerics wrangling over ancient doctrines, Americans went straight to the source—the spirit of Jesus Christ for theological dilemmas, the spirits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin for civic ones.
The practical orientation of spiritualism led some followers to meld the worldly and otherworldly in remarkably literal ways. Thomas Richmond described presidents, legislators and judges gathering in a Spirit Congress where the framers of the Constitution sat among an eclectic pantheon that included Moses, Joan of Arc and Mary Queen of Scots. In 1861, Richmond received notice that “the subject of the Rebellion was … under consideration,” and that he had the special task of communicating the Spirit Congress’s wishes to mortal leaders in the “lower realm.”
Spirits had not deigned to intervene for the preceding millennia of human history, but the injustice of American slavery provoked them to unprecedented action. They were aided by the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in the spirit world in 1790. According to many spiritualists, it was Franklin, tinkerer, entrepreneur and diplomat, who opened up communications between the living and the dead by inventing the “rapping telegraph.” This immaterial apparatus debuted in 1848, making contact with soon-to-be celebrity mediums Kate and Maggie Fox of Rochester, New York, and marking the beginning of spiritualism as a popular movement.
Not surprisingly, Franklin quickly stepped up as the spirit world’s chief strategist and emissary during the volatile 1850s. According to Richmond, spirit-Franklin engaged his services because Richmond was a practical man of business, more likely to win the trust of serious audiences. Through a writing medium, Richmond received detailed instructions about obtaining justice for African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction: “Go personally to Washington,” Franklin implored, directing him to sit in particular House and Senate sessions—not to testify, but “to think, to be a battery of brain, mind, and thought through which spirit minds could act on other men’s brains.”
Unlike the abstract, moralizing exhortations of many spirit mediums, Richmond’s missives were tactical. Franklin had his amanuensis compose “scores of letters to Presidents, Members of their Cabinet, Members of Congress and Governors of States,” and counseled him to “set forth the absolute necessity” of arming slaves and “making use of all Southern resources that can be obtained.” Of course, abolitionists saw Southern secession as the final blow against slavery, and abolitionist mediums added to the chorus with calls for emancipation attributed to George Washington, John Adams, et al. Franklin’s very specific military instructions go much further, showing the desire and capability of the dead to actively intervene in mortal affairs.
It’s understandable that the image of a Spirit Congress would provide much-needed comfort amidst the terror of war; living leaders were untested by such trials, while Washington and his peers had united the country once, and could do it again. The conservative, nostalgic ideal of past American “greatness” underwent a mutant reanimation in the spiritualist effort to mobilize history in building a new and more equitable society. At the root of both conservative and radical impulses are phantoms whose putative intentions are impossible to disentangle from our own.
Most of the spiritualist mediums engaged as wartime prognosticators and intermediaries happily rested their case after 1865, moving on from abolition to other causes, such as women’s suffrage and temperance.1 Richmond, however, pressed on through Reconstruction. As spirit-Washington and spirit-Franklin well knew, military victory was only the beginning of a long process, and Richmond was happy to prod the slow machinery of earthly policymaking on their behalf. He soon turned his efforts towards impeaching Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, when Johnson refused to grant rights of citizenship to former slaves. From his sickbed after a bout of erysipelas, and then in the House and Senate chambers, Richmond propounded “the radical and just measures that had been determined on and adopted by the Spirit Congress … the same right and justice to the black man as the white.”
When Richmond’s account of this decade-long experiment in spiritual influence went to press in 1870, it was an extreme but evocative example of how sympathy could become a creative force for reconciling past and present. At the same time, it raises troubling questions for modern readers about why we seek to know the intentions of historical figures, and how we frame their influence on current events. The desire to redeem what we find distasteful in the past can lead down reactionary paths just as easily as reformist ones, as Robert Cox points out in his research on pro-slavery spiritualists who vied for influence within the movement. Recognizing the amphibious nature of spirit voices, “roaring radicals” of subsequent decades would turn more towards real-world political organizing, and the voices of Franklin and Washington faded from their lips.
The freshly sworn-in Judge Gorsuch promised little in his confirmation hearings, but he did elaborate on his commitment to originalism. Gorsuch acknowledged that he cannot access “the secret intentions of the drafters”; he rather seeks to “understand what the words on the page mean.” At the same time, he grants that centuries of legal precedent have shifted the accepted meaning of those words from their eighteenth-century connotations. Gorsuch spoke as though interpreting meaning and applying precedent were straightforward, practically automated functions—perhaps seeking to exorcise the living-or-dead document debate, and recast the law as a non-haunted, inorganic machine. A mechanical, objective judiciary seems more desirable than ever in this deeply partisan moment, but the “automatism” of spiritualist mediums suggests that even the most deeply felt certainty comes from a situated vantage point.
In 1867, a medium channeling John C. Calhoun noted that Americans “are perpetually looking toward the past, to know how to step into the future.” Yet history speaks in many voices, and as we translate those voices across time, the past becomes a moving target. The unverifiable spirit of Calhoun included himself when he declared that “men learn by the mistakes they have made.”