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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Constitutional Obligation

Many posts have discussed the Founding.

Greg Weiner at The Constitutionalist:
When teaching Edmund Burke, I often pose this question: Suppose you inherit a manor house that has been in your family for generations. It has, in all likelihood, been modified, whether with electricity or indoor plumbing or a modern kitchen. But the basic structure of the house remains intact: An ancestor from generations ago would still recognize it. The place doesn’t suit your tastes, so you decide to tear it down and build something in the style of modernist architecture instead. The question is this: Have you done something unwise or immoral?

The politics of obligation holds that you have wronged both your ancestors and descendants. Your ancestors built and tended this house; your descendants will expect to have received it in trust as well. But you elevated your appetites over that obligation.

Constitutional obligation is similar. We are obligated to the Constitution not because it or its framers were perfect—neither it nor they were—but rather because we hold their legacy in trust.

In September 1789, Madison’s friend Thomas Jefferson, the American minister to France—who was infatuated with the revolution in that country—wrote him a letter. Its central claim was that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” Past generations could claim no right over it. Jefferson, using demographic tables to calculate the length of a typical generation at 19 years, said no public debt or law could bind beyond that duration.