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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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The Constitution’s Design for Creating Civic Virtue: Part II

This is the second part of a three-part summary of a speech that I gave last weekend at the 2015 National Lawyers Convention of the Federalist Society. The first part focuses on how commerce encourages civic virtue. The second continues by discussing how limited government aids civic culture and how the Constitution helps assure that religion will be helpful rather than harmful to that culture:

Besides encouraging a commercial society, the Constitution also sharply limits government. The federal government is limited by the enumerated powers. The states’ capacity to create large, intrusive, anti-commercial government is circumscribed by the right of citizens to exit. To take just a purely hypothetical example, if my home state of Illinois exacts large taxes in favor of small groups like public sector unions, many of its citizens will leave.

Limited government creates the space and indeed the need for the kind of private associations that Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated.  Varying in size and mission, these associations may concern self-improvement, mutual aid, or social welfare. As the Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom showed, these associations can help people develop bonds of social trust and maintain long-term relations of reciprocal goodwill, which can also help sustain a free society.

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Killing Socrates

Victorian engraving of the death of Socrates.

Marco Rubio demonstrated keen political instincts during one of the primary debates when he used his opening remarks to argue for an end to the stigmatization of vocational training, handily linking the stigmatization to the minimum wage and America’s flagging economy.

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The Scopes Trial and the Problem of Democratic Control

Jury in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For decades, defenders of liberty and self-rule have been fighting what seems like a continuous battle about the power, reach, and accountability of the federal government. Thoughtful critics of the federal invasion of our liberties draw from rich intellectual, political, and constitutional arguments. But few think as deeply about the cultural conditions of a free and self-reliant people.

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Of Competence and Cabrera, Continued


In response to a recent post of mine, Mark Pulliam asks: “How and when did higher education administration in America become completely captured by knaves, fools, and cowards?” Great question. “Completely” doesn’t quite capture it: Purdue and Baylor and Hillsdale are run by responsible, courageous people. Conversely, Mark’s question doesn’t quite capture GMU. “Just last evening,” GMU President Cabrera breathed in his missive to the GMU “community,” a “racially offensive” picture was found in a residence hall that was “demeaning, dehumanizing, and unfit for our community.” That picture appears nearby. Nobody at GMU—not any students’ association, not nobody—has been able to…

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

At the Federalist Society Convention I had a debate with my friend, Professor Robert George, on a famous quote by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In the next three posts, I will excerpt my speech. And then I will add a postscript on Washington’s Farewell Address. Here is the beginning:

John Adams famously said “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His claim assumes that we can afford to have the limited government created by the Constitution because the people are already possessed of an abundance of virtue—indeed crucially virtues fortified by religion. But the Constitution itself reflects a very different faith: that a people blessed with a constitution like our own are likely to develop the virtues of self-restraint and social trust needed in order to thrive.

Religion can certainly help actualize virtues but so can other kinds of culture and practices. And the Constitution is premised on the enlightenment view that its very design can create the necessary virtues for civic life from elements of human nature, including raw self-interest.  The constitutional structure thus maintains itself and does not necessarily depend on any religious system.

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