The Farewell Address Reflects Federalist Party Policy Rather than the Constitution

The Rosenkranz Debate concerned the truth of John Adams’ quotation: The Constitution is designed  for a moral and religious people and it’s wholly unfitted for the government any other.  My friend, Professor Robert George, relied primarily on George Washington’s Farewell Address for historical evidence.  There Washington, like Adams, claimed religion was important, if not essential, to sustaining the Republic.  For instance, Washington famously said,   “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

But Washington’s Farewell Address provides an uncertain guide as to whether the Framers of the Constitution thought widespread religious belief necessary to sustain it. As I noted in my opening remarks at the debate, the text of the Constitution does not support this view. It does not establish any particular religion or even require belief in a religion of one’s choice. It instead expressly prohibits all religious tests for offices under the United State Constitution.

Moreover, it is dangerous to rely too much on the words of politicians in political strife to establish much about the Constitution. And as great as George Washington was he was still a politician, and as powerfully stated is his Farewell address, it is in large measure a document reflecting the principles of the Federalist party.  His remarks on religion parallel one of key attacks of the Federalists on the Democratic Republicans–that they were deists, like the dreaded French Revolutionaries, or at least no friends of traditional religion. 

Read More

The Consequences of Allowing Presidents to Ignore the Declare War Clause

While most criticisms of nonoriginalism focus on the creation of constitutional rights that do not exist in the document, the failure to follow the original meaning concerning the separation of powers should receive more attention.  In particular, the failure of the courts and, in areas where the courts do not typically decide matters, the political branches to enforce the original meaning has had serious harm.

Consider the requirement under the Constitution’s original meaning that Congress authorize American wars (except where the U.S. is attacked).  There is a strong case to be made that Constitution’s original meaning imposes this rule.  Despite claims of presidents who seek to engage in hostilities without congressional authorization, the Constitution’s original meaning would work well.  By contrast, under our existing “constitutional practice,” presidents are usually able to engage in war without congressional authorization, as President Obama did in Libya.  And this not only allows presidents to fight wars that the country is not behind, but also undermines the entire system of responsibility that the Constitution establishes in this area. 

Read More

James Madison’s Trump Card


The Trump phenomenon—whose latest instantiation is his outright lie about hordes of Jersey City Muslims cheering the collapse of the Twin Towers—is widely thought to be a test of other Republican candidates. It is more than that. With Trump still leading national polls—still?—it is becoming a test of the Madisonian thesis. 

Read More

Attuned to the Daimon


Richard Bishirjian wears many hats. He's a businessman, speaker, educator, regular contributor to Modern Age, founder and president of Yorktown University, and champion of online education. He has been a visible presence at conservative conferences and colloquia and an active member of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the National Association of Scholars. As a young man he studied under Gerhart Niemeyer, Ralph McInerny, Eric Voegelin, and Michael Oakeshott, whose philosophical influences are on display in The Conservative Rebellion, Bishirjian’s latest book, which seeks to reclaim that evocative and oft-abused signifier, “rebel.” The author disavows the term “conservative movement”…

Read More

Obama’s Wrecking Ball Administration

miley cyrus sulla palla demolitrice

This past Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed its expected petition for certiorari in Texas v. United States, involving several states’ challenge to the administration’s “deferred action” program (“DAPA”). DAPA would grant deferred action—and, along with it, work permits and other benefits—to several million immigrants who are unlawfully present in the United States. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a preliminary injunction against DAPA on November 9; DoJ’s petition to review that preliminary ruling on an expedited schedule arrived within a fortnight. Why the haste, my child? Well, on an expedited schedule this case could still be heard and…

Read More

Thanksgiving with Tocqueville


Food, football, and another uncomfortable conversation with the family boor are what many Americans have in store for them this (and every) Thanksgiving.

For the few and the proud who can look forward to a civil discussion of today’s news in addition to a delicious meal, this year’s political menu includes the ongoing craziness on college campuses, the collapse of twelve of the twenty-three Obamacare state co-ops, and the twists and turns of the presidential race, not to mention the deadly seriousness of another horrific terrorist attack.

Read More

The Constitution’s Design for Promoting Civic Virtue: Part III

This is the last in a series of posts excerpting my speech at the Federalist National Convention, arguing that only religious freedom, not pervasive religious sentiment, is necessary to civic virtue under our constitutional order.  Here I show that periods of greater religiosity do not coincide with greater constitutional fidelity:

One test of whether religion is necessary to preserve the constitutional order is whether periods of greater religiosity coincide with greater fidelity to the Constitution itself. And if we look at the course of American history, we do not find a high degree of correlation, let alone a causal connection, between periods of greater religiosity and fidelity to the Constitution. History also fails to show a positive correlation between secularism and constitutionality. Rather, it underscores the great dangers to our constitutional  order can come from either religious enthusiasm or secular utopianism. Both share an ecstatic approach to politics that finds the Constitution inconvenient, as its constraints protect a society generated by the spontaneous order of freedom. It is not that only that the Constitution can be preserved by the liberal order it encourages, but it can be destabilized by demands for government-enforced morality that is too encompassing.

In a very interesting recent book, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution, John Compton makes the persuasive case that living constitutionalism—the theory that upends our written Constitution—has its beginning in the evangelism that originated in the second great awakening. These evangelicals and their religious descendants became unhappy that the Constitution as written facilitated such vices as alcohol and gambling by protecting interstate commerce and vested rights in property. They therefore promoted legislation that empowered the federal government, as opposed to the states, to regulate morals despite the limitations of the enumerated powers. They also wanted to destroy property used for immoral purposes despite the protection of vested rights.

The precedents set by this movement became key for progressive arguments. Just as the Constitution could be transformed to permit moral reform on a grand scale, so it could justify federal control of the economy.

Read More

Paint It Black


William Bulger was a “throwback,” reported 60 Minutes back in 1992, one of those colorful politicians who relished his job and seemed to know most of his constituents by name. Bulger had served in the lower house of Massachusetts’ legislature and as president of its Senate, and 60 Minutes showed him in all his anachronistic glory, crooning Irish ballads and marching in South Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Billy Bulger had grown up in “Southie” and never left, thriving in his public roles by mixing patronage and charm in the manner of his boyhood hero, the four-term Boston mayor John Michael Curly (inspiration for Edwin O’Connor’s famous 1956 novel, The Last Hurrah).

Bulger, however, did have one particularly “sensitive issue,” said the show’s longtime reporter, Morley Safer. It was his older brother Jimmy, a.k.a., Whitey, who happened to be “one of the most feared mobsters in Boston.” This Bulger was rarely glimpsed in public, said Safer, sticking mainly to the shadowy underworld where only criminals and cops were likely to go. You’d never see Whitey, the black sheep of the family, strutting with a shillelagh in a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Read More

Primus on the Inaccuracy of Madison’s Notes

In my last post, I discussed the implications for originalism if Madison’s Notes are inaccurate.  In this post, I will discuss some commentary by Richard Primus, one of the leading originalist critics, about why originalists might be upset about the inaccuracy of the diary. Primus acknowledges that original public meaning originalists should not be much affected by the inaccuracy, because Madison’s Notes are not very relevant to their theory, which focuses on word meanings.  But he still believes originalists are likely to be upset: Four of the important appeals of originalism are (1) the promise of stability, (2) the opportunity to bask…

Read More

Europe’s Bloodless Universalism

Preparing for a raid on an apartment in Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels.

By now the story of Omar Ismail Mostefai, the first of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks to be named, is depressingly familiar. One could almost have written his biography before knowing anything about him. A petty criminal of Algerian parentage from what all the world now calls the banlieue, he was sustained largely by the social security system, an erstwhile fan of rap music, and a votary of what might be called the continuation of criminality by other means, which is to say Islamism and the grandiose purpose in life that it gives to its adherents.

Read More