It is essential that each new generation understand the meaning of the United States Constitution. As Aristotle wrote long ago, "It is useless to have the most beneficial laws, fully agreed upon by all who are members of the constitution, if they are not going to be trained and have their habits formed in the spirit of that constitution." (1.) No society can survive without a populace educated to the character of its political institutions. Plato expected only the worst of democracy. The relative freedom of society's members in a democracy may be appealing, but citizens will not be sufficiently ethical for popular governance to be decent and beneficent for any length of time. Citizens are perpetually tempted to abuse their democratic privileges until society degenerates into barbaric disorder. Many think that the United States is dangerously close to succumbing to such excess.
With the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act recently renewed by the Obama administration, citizens have also surrendered constitutional rights that their ancestors fought and died to defend. Culturally, our civilization shows signs of becoming sadomasochistic, excessively materialistic, and rude without apology. The combination of increasingly centralized authority and moral-cultural decadence should concern every member of society. It seems that even our political representatives are largely unfamiliar with the Constitution's content and underpinnings. More discussion of the framing's full nature and context is thus imperative. Although the meaning of our constitutional tradition is being intensely debated by prominent scholars, some of them seem unaware of important aspects of the framing, and the preservation of constitutionalism in the United States demands an intimate understanding of the Constitution that also does not unduly privilege a particular ideological orientation.
A holistic interpretation of the founding is essential. The entire range of American experience prior to the ratifying conventions must be considered. Too many people are preoccupied with ideologically labeling this complex and conflicted document. Is the Constitution radical or reactionary, liberal or conservative, traditional or innovative? What needs to be considered is that all of these adjectives may be needed to describe parts of the ethos that helped to shape the political foundation of the United States. Though some individuals and ideas were more important than others, lesser influences must not be omitted from consideration. Selective interpretation compromises the meaning of a document and ethos that are permeated with a healthy degree of political tension and diversity. As Peter Viereck has cautioned, "both liberals and conservatives, whenever minimizing each other's American roots, weaken the shared opportunity for the creative richness of the American past to serve America's future." (2) It must be remembered, writes Forrest McDonald, that the Constitution was a compromise amongst very different cooperating members of a community. "Their positions," he notes, "were diverse and, in many particulars, incompatible." (3)
Scholars must never reduce into a catchphrase the complex of personalities and events that created the Constitution. A penchant for ideological tidiness is today debilitating the United States. Our political system is suffering from an excess of partisan ideological polarization. The common good cannot be served well through dogmatic politics. Solutions to political problems require compromise and cooperation, which may be lost in the din of ideological bickering. There is little discourse--and, more importantly, neither respect nor compliments for the opposition, lest one be labeled soft or even a traitor. Liberals are viewed as bloody hearted revolutionaries, conservatives as rich, corrupt capitalists, and the twain shall never reconcile. Yet both inclinations may be essential to the health of the Constitution. Unfortunately, 'liberal' and 'conservative' have become virtually useless terms, political abbreviations often so misleading that today a classical liberal is considered a conservative and a conservative a libertarian. Intelligent dissent is a lynchpin of representative democracy. The Constitution cannot survive without representatives who publicly debate legitimate policy differences rather than caricature the opposition. Exacerbating the partisan gridlock are prominent scholars who refuse to consider that competing forces were at work when the Constitution was taking shape.
Definitive ideological statements concerning the nature of the Constitution facilitate this dogmatic partisanship. If the Constitution is liberal, then liberal ideology is also the political gospel, and so on. But a closed ideology presuming to have an answer in advance for every potential question will hardly facilitate the compromise, cooperation, and adaptation indispensable to the health of any regime. Both Democrats and Republicans are afflicted with this disease. But human questions are forever subject to scrutiny and reconsideration; there are no definitive answers. Ideologues may smugly brandish their scepters of 'Truth,' but only to the detriment of the public good. Browbeating one's adversaries into submission with a a simplistic interpretation of the historical facts does nothing to solve real political problems. The common good dies slowly and painfully, whilst prematurely passionate individuals are able to convince their constituents, listeners, and readers to evade the questions that matter most.
The Constitution's framing was not simply conservative or liberal, radical or reactionary, Federalist or Antifederalist, English or American; it was an Occidental amalgamation of these various and often competing ideas. The Constitution is the organic product of an assimilated intellectual and experiential heritage in combination with the innovative political insights of ethically and historically minded individuals. It is the result both of tradition and enlightened reason, prescription and creativity, experience and invention, moral imagination and historical sense. The Constitution is liberal and conservative. Indeed, it is this liberal-conservative synergy that has enabled the Constitution efficaciously to sustain a civilization for over two hundred years. It is a synthesis of old and new, change and conservation, that is too often neglected in constitutional debates. Ignoring either half of this reality undermines the integrity of the U.S. political heritage.
Conservative Restoration of a Liberal Republic?
It is the well-known thesis of Louis Hartz that the Americans who won independence from Britain appear in retrospect to have been conservatives because, ironically, they "had inherited the freest society in the world .... It gave them ... an appearance of outright conservatism." (4) For Hartz, conservatism is a facade masking the true liberal essence of the American regime. There is indeed ideological continuity between colonial politics and the Constitution, Hartz argues, and this organic connection is the primary reason observers misconstrue the framing as a conservative endeavor. Since the first sailing of the Mayflower, he writes, colonial history "had been a story of new beginnings, daring enterprises, and explicitly stated principles--it breathed, in other words, the spirit of Bentham himself. The result was that the traditionalism of the Americans, like a pure freak of logic, often bore amazing marks of antihistorical rationalism." (5)
The Constitution is ostensibly conservative, but the tradition conserved is inherently radical, Hartz argues. "That is why the insight of Gunnar Myrdal is a very distinguished one when he writes: 'America is ... conservative .... But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.' Radicalism and conservatism have been twisted entirely out of shape by the liberal flow of American history." (6) The Constitution is thus, for Hartz, the logical fruit of the Enlightenment, a revolutionary break with the wisdom of the ages. Innovative and rational, the framers were brilliant anti-traditionalists who did not need to respect the past. "The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition," Hartz famously proclaims. (7)
In The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Gordon Wood presents an opposing view. For him, the Constitution was an attempt to staunch the democratic excesses of the Revolution. There is a distinct rupture between the sanguine Whig Republicanism of the Revolution and the framers' sober views of man and government. The despotic failure of several state experiments with democratic legislation prompted American elites significantly to lower their political expectations. "Yet because the Revolution represented," Wood states, "much more than a colonial rebellion, represented in fact a utopian effort to reform the character of American society and to establish truly free governments, men in the 1780's could actually believe that it was failing. ... The people had been given an extraordinary amount of power in the 1776 constitutions but apparently were not qualified to wield it." (8) The framers saw firsthand that classical republicanism was romantically naive, hence unreliable. People could not be trusted to remain virtuous with so much liberty. A government depending entirely on the virtue of its leaders was doomed. The Constitution could only be sustained by principles respectfully addressing the full ethical range of human nature.
"To the Federalists the move for the new central government became the ultimate act of the entire revolutionary era," Wood states; "it was both a progressive attempt to salvage the Revolution in the face of its imminent failure and a reactionary effort to restrain its excesses." (9) While "Americans had in fact institutionalized and legitimized...