The idea of a written constitution is coupled in The Federalist with another important contribution about how the people should regard the document. What kind of thing is a written constitution? From a legal standpoint, 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?
As with the idea of a written constitution, many today can easily overlook the originality of this doctrine. But there is no logical connection between what are just words on a page and the veneration we apply to them. The idea of reverence for the Constitution was a creation of The Federalist. But why did The Federalist create this doctrine of constitutional reverence?
First of all, 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 people still had unusual confidence in their leaders, most notably George Washington, and when there was a lingering unity of purpose stemming from the Revolution.
Even more importantly—though the authors could not openly state this about themselves—was that the main figures involved were persons of exceptional talents, with rare devotion to the public good, and, in the case of a few, extensive knowledge of the science of politics. As I hinted above, accident (or chance) played a critical and perhaps decisive role in ratifying the Constitution.
Given these facts, the founders concluded that it would be best to lock in the gain. Veneration of the Constitution was a means to assure its durability and avoid 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.
It is important to note, finally, that while The Federalist allows for piety as a support for the Constitution, it also presents the rational arguments in its favor. Depending on one’s inclination, either basis of maintaining the frame of government might work. This combination of rationalism and traditionalism is not easy to realize, as these two commitments pull the public mind in different directions. But suspended between these two poles is arguably the most realistic position for the public mind.
To support this combination, I chose upon solemn consideration to place “Fed 49” on my Virginia license plate. By this means I hope to impress on all who venture on our roads, and especially on the willful who tailgate, the need for restraint and the importance of fidelity to the Constitution.