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No People? No Constitution!

A constitution exists only for so long as there exists a people capable of sustaining it. The formal institutions of a constitutional arrangement may still exist even after the citizen body capable of bearing it has ceased to exist. In an age of polarization and identity politics, many wonder whether the United States is still an e pluribus unum. The more pertinent question, however, is whether the Constitution designed for such a people still exists. In our previous symposium on this site, concerning the question of American national character, nothing was more powerfully reinforced than the possibility that the United States consists, at best, of several peoples rather than one people. Whether one assesses this issue from the point of the historical development of the United States or the contemporary embarrassments of public discourse, the same image emerges: the United States may not consist of “one people.”

That observation says much about the beliefs and habits of the people. It says far more about the question of national character and the characters of the citizens making up the nation. There is no suggestion that the people of the United States are not by nature capable of exhibiting the character required for national existence within the framework of self-government. It was settled at the Founding that humankind is capable of “establishing good government from reflection and choice.” However, inasmuch as the preservation of good government depends upon the demonstration of that character appropriate to the task—as George Washington, among others, articulated it—then would follow that such a citizen body does not exist where the correlative character has ceased to exist.

The evidence for the decline, if not outright disappearance, of the character appropriate to self-government—the character of forbearance and justice, fortitude and industry and, above all, personal responsibility—is on display in the dramatic growth of the culture of entitlement and victimization and the correlative character traits that go along with it. What is truly remarkable, however, is that such development did not occur by mere evolutionary processes. Rather, it was occasioned by a deliberate re-articulation, by Franklin Roosevelt, of the grounds of participation in the political community and the character required for that participation. Abandoning the standard Washington fostered, Roosevelt opened the way to a standard that substituted dependence for independence.

Washington urged a standard of decency—or forbearance. That standard inclines to justice which, besides meaning the completion of virtue, carries also the lesser but important meaning of law-abidingness. Thus, political rule seeks to inculcate in the ruled the spirit of law-abidingness. Because justice is specifically relational rather than institutional, it can never be systemic but rather only individually performative (that is, when all or most are just, the society is just). Thus, the harmony or concord sought in the community is the concord not of opinions but of dispositions to weigh the good of others in determining one’s own conduct. It is choosing to act decently.

By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt inculcated an “enlightened administration” that discounted the power and value of such manners and mores. He argued that individual expressions of character had become inefficacious in the modern era, for liberty was inefficacious apart from the establishment of the prior condition of material security. Where Washington spoke at a time of political and material insecurity (1783) and highlighted the resources of decency within the community as the condition for surmounting such challenges, Roosevelt spoke at a time of relative political strength and material strength, and highlighted the inadequacy of the people’s character to sustain the regime.

The way Roosevelt achieved this result was by redefining the meaning of freedom. In a series of addresses beginning in 1932, he developed the argument such that he could, by 1944, finally declare that

true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ . . . In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights . . . a new basis of security and prosperity.

What this means quite literally is that the exercise of freedom is not the foundation of material and political prosperity; rather, material prosperity is the foundation for the exercise of freedom. No longer, therefore, is the hardy character of persons making their way in the world by dint of hard work and determination the basis of self-government.

It follows necessarily that, when citizens develop the disposition to make their self-interest (or the interest of their particular group) the guide to conduct, they act in a way that is incompatible with an end of politics understood as forbearance and justice. In contemporary terms, fostering identify politics is contrary to the end of the political community. Unless a disposition to forbearance and justice is intrinsic to the exercise of liberty, liberty will not be productive of the human good understood in political terms. Therefore, it would also follow that a constitution constructed to foster such liberty no longer exists.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on September 03, 2019 at 06:03:04 am

[…] No People? No Constitution! […]

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Image of Liberty and American National Character: A Law & Liberty Symposium
Liberty and American National Character: A Law & Liberty Symposium
on September 03, 2019 at 10:27:55 am

What this means quite literally is that the exercise of freedom is not the foundation of material and political prosperity; rather, material prosperity is the foundation for the exercise of freedom.

This also reverses cause and effect, to the absolute detriment of both. Material and political prosperity are the consequence of freedom, not its cause. And as has been observed time and again, people are more "necessitous" in conditions of material prosperity, leading to the paradox that the more material prosperity, the more necessitousness justifying more government limitation of freedom, until the political and social order collapse, as in Venezuela.

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QET
on September 03, 2019 at 18:18:12 pm

Ah, the bugaboo of 'self-interest' arises anew (ref last paragraph of essay). In a recent, illuminating dialogue with Prof. Rasmussen, I discovered the wild variations in the conception of 'self-interest.' Mine is so flexible as to include the soldier jumping on a grenade to save his brothers-in-war. How does this view grow from a simple self-interest of self-survival? I respectfully refer you to Vol 5, Documentary History of the 1st Fed. Congress, Johns Hopkins Press1986, Sec. of War, Henry Knox' "Plan for the Militia of the United States," pp. 1435 - 1457.

"[E]fficient institutions must be established for the military education of the youth, and that the knowledge acquired therein shall be diffused throughout the community by the mean of rotation. [And thereby] a glorious national spirit will be introduced with its extensive train of political consequences - the youth will imbibe a love of their country - reverence and obedience to its laws - courage and elevation of mind - openness and liberality of character - accompanied by a just spirit of honor." (pp. 1338 - 1439)

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John Tate
on September 03, 2019 at 20:21:17 pm

"Long before our own time, the customs of our ancestors moulded admirable men, and in turn these eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forebears.
Our age, however, inherited the Republic like some beautiful painting of bygone days, its colors already fading through great age; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its form and outlines.
For what remains to us, nowadays, of the ancient ways on which the commonwealth, we are told, was founded? We see them so lost in oblivion that they are not merely neglected, but quite forgot.
And what am I to say of the men? For our customs have perished for want of men to stand by them, and we are now called to an account, so that we stand impeached like men accused of capital crimes, compelled to plead our own cause.
Through our vices, rather than from happenstance, we retain the word “republic” long after we have lost the reality."

—Cicero, On The Republic

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Image of Mark D.
Mark D.
on September 04, 2019 at 10:55:26 am

[…] What is our modern interpretation of the intent of the phrase, “Importation of such persons?” “…if the Constitution is indeed pro-slavery in its intent, all legislative efforts to curb slavery’s operations must also be a violation of that intent, whereas if the Constitution is anti-slavery in intention, slaveholders have no just complaint against federal action to curtail it.” Read The Constitution: A Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery Document”, here. “A constitution exists only for so long as there exists a people capable of sustaining it.” read No People? No Constitution!, here. […]

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Image of Does America’s First Flag Symbolize “Exclusion and Hate?” Part 1 – Musicians4Freedom
Does America’s First Flag Symbolize “Exclusion and Hate?” Part 1 – Musicians4Freedom
on September 05, 2019 at 11:45:55 am

We the people have become we the peoples, in hubris falling for a con job by the elite, who want one world.

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Image of Edward Carter
Edward Carter
on September 24, 2019 at 17:23:18 pm

100% Correct. Maritime Admiralty Law and a boat load of adhesion contracts, the driver's licence, performance bond or "birth certificate" if you will. People need to wake up.

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Neo

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.