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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Venerating the Constitution

At AEI, James Ceaser writes:
The idea of a written constitution, if it was indeed an American discovery, is coupled in The Federalist with an equally important contribution that relates to the way in which people are to regard the document. The issue here is fundamental: What kind of thing is a written constitution? From a legal standpoint, as we have seen, a written constitution is higher law. But is it merely law, or does it perform a further function and have a different status? Is the Constitution something to be venerated—something that endows government with respect and contributes to its stability and endurance—and that provides a bond that connects the people to the nation?
Federalist 49 develops the doctrine of attaching the sentiment of reverence to the Constitution. As with the idea of a written constitution, many today can easily overlook the originality of this doctrine, so widely is it accepted today that the Constitution is supposed to be looked up to (a little bit, anyhow).
Why did The Federalist create the doctrine of constitutional reverence? One set of arguments rested on practical considerations, though practical in the most expansive sense of the term. The experience of the leading figures in writing and promoting the Constitution led them to appreciate just how difficult it was to secure a happy outcome for this kind of venture. The odds of success, they concluded, would always be slim, and there were always grave risks in trying. Every attempt at remaking government creates instability and threatens to divide the nation.
These leaders were also aware of how favorable, relatively speaking, were the circumstances in their day for accomplishing their objective. The proposed constitution was being considered at a time when the people still had unusual confidence and trust in their leaders, most notably George Washington, and when there was a lingering unity of purpose stemming from the Revolution. A fact of still greater importance was one that The Federalist could not openly avow: that the main figures involved were persons of exceptional talents, rare devotion to the public good, and, in the case of a few, extensive knowledge of the science of politics. Chance or accident, though it did not take the place of reflection in the making of the Constitution, played a critical, perhaps decisive, role in its ratification.
Given these facts, the conclusion drawn was that it would be best to lock in the gain. Veneration of the Constitution was a means to assure its durability and avoid the temptations to engage in experiments of new-modeling the government. Durability would not exclude changes, which the Constitution allows for by the process of amendment. But amendment is not made easy, as this would defeat the objective of durability.