A Constitution in Full

The journal Anamnesis has just published my essay on the 19th century political thinker Orestes Brownson. I am attempting in this essay to apply Brownson’s insights on America’s 19th century constitutional dysfunction that produced the Civil War to the problems posed to our constitutional order by progressivism. I do this by focusing on Brownson’s identification of the misunderstanding of American constitutionalism posed by the personalist democracy of the Southerners and the humanitarian centralized democracy of the Northerners. The latter found its clearest expression in the consolidationist approach of the abolitionists. Brownson’s warnings here of the proto-progressives of his day can clearly provide us with resources to addressing the progressives of present day.

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Liberal Constitutionalism and Us

Michael Greve’s April 2012 post “Constitutionalism, Hegel, and Us” had several significant points in his short essay masquerading as a blog post. Greve notes that liberal constitutionalism per Hegel’s argument in Philosophy of Right has a problem, a big one.

[P]olitical liberalism (Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and, with some qualifications, Rousseau) confuses civil society with the State.  Again, that makes us nervous; but the distinction has a very large kernel of good sense. The principle of liberal constitutionalism, Hegel says, is “endless subjectivity,” or what we call “individualism.” A liberal constitution is a contract among individuals, who consent to limits on their autonomy insofar, and only insofar, as they are consistent with individualist principles. (Think Locke’s Second Treatise.) To state Hegel’s central objection at phenomenological level: you can’t run a free country on that basis.

So we need more than individuals. We need a society of persons constituted by familial, local, religious, and political attachments, recognizing that personhood contains aspirations and purposes that place it beyond the scope of state power. Society “possesses primacy over the state.” The state must serve the ends of the human person. On this basis we can relativize the state’s value.

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