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Happy Constitution Day!

As I explained a couple of years ago, I lost interest in talking up Constitution Day when the government said we at colleges that get federal money are required to do so.

Still, it’s good to remember that the American “founding document” most in the spirit of the day is James Madison’s Federalist 49.  The Federalist, of course, is that collection of 85 essays or “papers” that were written to support the ratification of the Constitution by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  It really is true that you don’t know much about how the Constitution works even today if you haven’t read them. 

We haven’t been so innovative and disruptive that we’ve dispensed with the separation of powers, the check and balances, the large and diverse republic (or a democracy with a scheme of representation), judicial review, a strong president with a fixed term, bicameralism, federalism, and so forth and so on.  And the Federalist‘s understanding of how the Constitution directs self-interest and passion toward serving constitutional liberty makes it one of the most astute books on psychology you’ll ever read.

That doesn’t mean that the Federalist is perfect or that you have to believe that the Constitution is what the Federalist says it is.  The Anti-Federalist author writing under the pseudonym Brutus, for example, tells a lot more truth about how judicial review would actually play out in America.  He predicted “the imperial judiciary,” while Federalist 78 probably misled us by say the judiciary would inevitably be “the least dangerous branch.”

Federalist 49 argues against a pointy-headed scheme by Thomas Jefferson that would refer to every dispute among the branches of government to a constitutional convention. According to Madison, it serves the cause of liberty that, under the Constitution, conventions are really hard to call (it’s never been done) and constitutional amendment is just about as difficult.

Madison patiently explains that “frequent appeals” to the people for the resolution of constitutional controversies “would…deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest government would not possess the requisite stability.”  Now:

In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded.  A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by a voice of enlightened reason.  But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.  And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.

Madison is not saying that the Constitution should only rely on prejudice.  It’s just that most people just don’t have the time or inclination to be guided only by “enlightened reason” in developing a devotion to their Constitution, for what really protects their liberty.  Even wise and free government depends on veneration for its stability.  What Madison is saying here, after all, is not that different from what evolutionary psychologists say these days about the limits of reason in grounding the indispensable attachments of social animals.  It’s even in accord with BIG THINK’s big idea today about the relationship between decision making and cognitive bias.

It’s true, Madison says straight out, that everything that passes the test of time tends to be accorded veneration, whether it deserves it or not.  But the effort to live without any veneration at all doesn’t produce “a nation of philosophers,” but a people too easily seduced by those who manipulate passion and interest to serve personal ambition and the lust for power and money. 

The Constitution’s stability shouldn’t depend only or even mainly on veneration, but it’s not a “superfluous advantage.”

Happy Constitution Day!


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