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The Virtue of the Constitution

Constitutionby David Corbin and Matthew Parks

Two hundred and twenty-six years ago today, the Constitutional Convention came to an end. The delegates completed the first step in a process that would, in time, lead to the world’s longest-lasting and most successful charter of government. We honor their work as we celebrate Constitution Day. But just how many in America’s ruling class are celebrating the Founders’ Constitution with us?

Of course, disputes over the Constitution’s value arose from the start. After New York Governor George Clinton read it, he called it “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.” Other (not always less strident) Anti-Federalists included Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee—great patriots all who had sacrificed much for American freedom and independence.

The Federalists and Anti-Federalists argued over whether the Constitution was a good means to their common end: to secure the long-term survival of a free republic on American soil. And so they supported or opposed the Constitution based upon their best judgment concerning whether it would help or hinder that effort.

Despite the sometimes sharp rhetoric of the debate, neither side had abandoned the essential principles of 1776: (1) that the job of government was to “secure” the God-given natural rights equally possessed by “all men”; and that this ought to be done by (2) “an impartial and exact execution of the laws,” as John Adams put it.

What distinguishes today’s progressive ruling class critics of the Founders’ Constitution from the Anti-Federalists is their wholesale rejection of both of these principles and almost all of the premises that inform them. In the spirit of their great intellectual forebear, Herbert Croly, they aim not to protect equal rights, but to produce equal results, with laws specially crafted and artfully applied to favor–well, those whom they favor.

Croly, like many a progressive today, bemoaned the unequal distribution of natural talents among people and the unequal circumstances in which people could employ their talents to pursue happiness, which, he reasoned, must leave a great many people unhappy. He argued (and progressives have followed his playbook since) that government ought to intervene in a discriminatory fashion on behalf of have-nots in order to right the wrongs of nature and circumstance. Such intervention would mean that men must give up on the idea that their rights were natural. Instead, a Leviathanic state would secure human dignity through partially and inexactly executing a set of laws always open to reinterpretation, as required by the progressive vision of justice.

What gave them the right to pursue this political alteration of the United States? Here, the pragmatist philosopher William James provided intellectual cover for progressive fellow travelers as they sought, in Croly’s words, “to fulfill the promise of American life”: “The truth of an idea is not the stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”

Since the truth of the proposition that “all men are created equal” did not correspond to the reality of differentiation within human nature, the original American yearning for political and moral equality could only be made true if an egalitarian society leveled the playing field by leveling the players.

So if you feel like you’re being leveled by big government on this Constitution Day, it’s because you are. While the Founders, in James Madison’s words, recognized that “the regulation of these various and interfering [economic] interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” they knew that the effort to make men happy by removing the cause of faction would require either the “unwise” expedient of destroying liberty or the “impracticable” expedient of “giving every citizen the same opinions, passions, and interests.”

Today, politicians in both parties believe that such a makeover is wise, practicable, and just, despite all evidence to the contrary. If you doubt the truth of this proposition, pay attention to the coming debate over the Affordable Care Act after peace in our time with Syria is achieved.

The problem with attempting to give men the same interests is that men do not always share the same interests. Yet if progressives are going to have any chance of getting everyone to see things the same way, they must make government more powerful, and then employ its power to make it in everyone’s best interest to join in, rather than suffer the consequences of being a political outsider. In other words, to employ the language of Federalist 10, the success of the progressive project rests on their ability to create one big faction: “a number of citizens . . . who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

The whole point of Federalist 10 is to show how the Constitution (and the Union it held together) would make Americans better able to combat the evil of faction. It presupposed that factious behavior is, in fact, evil and that it is natural, given the weaknesses of fallen humanity. It is, in other words, expected, but not excused: men know better and ought to do better.

This moral realism runs through The Federalist Papers. More than that, however, it is the animating spirit of the Constitution, the breath that makes its dry institutional bones live. The preamble’s words make this clear: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Every phrase suggests a world full of danger and difficulty where, nevertheless, better things are possible.

This is why Alexander Hamilton and James Madison did not despair when reflecting upon the troubled history of earlier republics, despite “feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” Those republics had been small, too easily dividing rich against poor. And students of the modern science of politics had learned much in the intervening years about balancing powers and slowing down runaway majorities.

The virtue of the Constitution and the political culture that surrounded it is that while it created plenty of room for lively political debate—like the debate over the Constitution itself—it discouraged faction by making it both politically difficult and morally suspect.

The mechanics of the Constitution have been largely untouched in the years since the founding, but, as we’ve seen, our political culture is very different today. Near the end of the president’s national address on Syria, he made an appeal to his “friends” on both the right and the left: those who cherish “America’s military might,” and those committed to “freedom and dignity for all people,” respectively. This partisan language, of course, tells us more about how progressives view themselves and their opponents than it does about the political philosophies of the American right and left. But if progressives, like the conservative heirs of the founders, are willing to be judged by whether their measures promote the freedom and dignity of all, then we can have our own robust debates within, not against, our great republican tradition–and all have good reason to truly celebrate Constitution Day.

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David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation.”  This article was published in The Blaze