The verdict of history can be hard to overturn, even when patently unjust. Luke Mayville, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University, is a young scholar pursuing his own version of the Innocence Project. The beneficiary of his researches is John Adams, who despite his revolutionary bona fides and his manifold services to the new nation, was tagged a “monocrat” and a reactionary apologist for aristocracy by Thomas Jefferson and his partisans. Mayville’s fine first book, John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy, almost completely clears Adams of these old, but remarkably persistent, anti-democratic charges.
This century witnessed the “return of history” in international affairs, and has now shown that we Americans are not immune from the tendencies of human nature toward excessive ambition, and of political society—particularly democracy—toward oligarchy and tyranny. Americans are not exceptional.
The British people’s decision to leave the European Union reveals that Britain, like the EU itself, suffers from a “democracy deficit.”
Several commentators have noted that that reality suggests the problem is not so much a political one, but instead concerns a feeling that “globalization can and has run roughshod over the economic and social orders of old,” and “the extraordinary movement of populations in the world today.” Ramesh Ponnuru argues that it is not Britain but the EU that suffers from the problem; but he probably overcorrects.
Peggy Noonan recently suggested that “elites are often the last to see their system is under siege. ‘It couldn’t be, I’ve done so well.’” There is much to this idea, especially in a nation like America where many are, in fact, doing very well, and are often socially isolated from others who are not doing so well. Near zero interest rates have flooded the stock market with money, and that, among other things, has been good for the wealthy. Outside of that, however, things are tougher, and not only economically. Because Americans are increasingly isolated socially and economically, our governing class often has trouble seeing this reality.
Our system was supposed to be designed to ensure regular contact between elites and the common citizen.
What Miracle on 34th Street Teaches Us About the Virtues of Capitalism.
Earlier this week I found myself watching Miracle on 34th Street. I never before noticed what a fine job it does explaining the connection between the market economy and virtue. If I taught economics rather than history I might use a few clips from the movie in class.
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.
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.
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.
David Brooks is in an angry and spiteful mood. Perhaps he’s even getting to be a bit unhinged, as history is putting his vision of American conservatism onto its rubbish heap.
Reading through John Adams’ Defence of the Constitutions, (I am currently preparing an edition for Liberty Fund), several passages have brought me up short, as they shed much light upon our current circumstances. Adams was among those who believed that, human nature being constant, history was a source of humane wisdom. His “Discourses on Davila,” which Adams often called the fourth volume of the Defence begins with an epigraph from Aesop that translates roughly as “happy are those who can learn wisdom from the misfortunes of others.”