Jeremiah John · September 17, 2019
One of my favorite aphorists — Heraclitus — said, “The people should fight for their law, as they do for their city wall.” I agree, but I would add that fighting for our law is a more complicated matter — and not an easier one — than fighting for our city wall. This is even truer for Americans, and their most basic, oldest “wall” of all: the U.S. Constitution.
Americans love the Constitution. That’s how it seems, anyway, listening to politicians, opinion columnists and activists of various persuasions. The cry of “Defend the Constitution!”— from the left and from the right — is often heard, while the cry of “Reform the Constitution!”or “A new Constitution!” is more rarely heard. A 2007 Rasmussen Report poll reported that 63 percent of Americans rate the U.S. Constitution “great” or “good,” even while dissatisfaction with “the political system in Washington” has more recently risen to over 80 percent.
But if the Constitution is loved, it does not seem to be well-known. Whenever some call us to rally around it, others are quick to observe that Americans aren’t very familiar with it. Civic literacy surveys regularly report on the dismal state of knowledge of the Constitution. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a poll in 2013 which showed that only 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government, and over half get it confused with the Declaration of Independence. If we admire the Constitution, perhaps we do so from a distance. To capture the style of our dedication, the satirical newspaper The Onion told of an “area man” who is a “passionate defender of what he imagines the Constitution to be.”
But what does it really mean to love and defend the Constitution? Does it mean that someone agrees with and endorses all its provisions? For example, was the Constitution worthy of love in 1787 when it included protections for slavery? Was it worthy of love after the Civil War Amendments — which guaranteed, among other things, “equal protection of the laws”— but before the 19th, which prohibited discrimination in voting rights based on sex? Are there some essential elements we can support with enthusiasm, discounting, for example, its number of strange rules for picking the president?
Do we love the Constitution less, the more we are willing to change it? My home state of Virginia has had, by my count, 6 different constitutions. The 1902 Constitution, which lasted longer than any other in Virginia history, was written in order to disenfranchise African-Americans and to entrench racial segregation in the state. That constitution was superseded by the current one, which was itself drafted before I was born, in 1971. But the Virginia Constitution of 1902, I will easily admit, I do not love.
As for the U.S. Constitution, it has many things I find to be wise: its distinct kind of federalism, its design of Congress as a true legislating body — not merely a parliament — and its provisions for judicial independence. Other parts seem wise to me but have been abolished, or diverted from their original purpose over time, such as the appointment of Senators by state legislatures, or the war power of Congress. And in other places, by omission or error, I think the U.S. Constitution is wrong. While many state constitutions are too easy to change, the federal Constitution is too hard to change. And I’d say the Mexican Constitution, in its single six-year term for presidents, or the German Constitution, in its special protections for marriage and family — to give two examples — get it right where our Constitution gets it wrong.
But I don’t love those other constitutions in the way I love the United States Constitution. I don’t pledge “true faith and allegiance” to them, because, after all, I am an American citizen. This “true faith” does not spring from a well-considered judgment about what system is best, comparing what we have with all the others that are available. Good thing, too, as almost no citizen knows their own constitution, let alone all the others, well enough to make this kind of judgment. Rather, the Constitution deserves the allegiance of Americans first because it is the only possible focus on our patriotism. Only through it did the United States as a political community come into being. Without it, it may yet cease to exist. The Constitution is, for Americans, our “koinon,” as the ancient Greeks put it: our common thing, the thing all citizens share in. If we also love the land and people of the United States along with its traditions and culture, its institutions and achievements, we must, by extension, love the Constitution of the United States. But love is compatible with correction, even major reform. Allegiance is compatible with criticism if it is measured. Like sailors who are repairing the boat they are currently floating in, we will have to adopt the care of people who appreciate what is keeping their heads above water.
So in one way, I like the attitude of the man who is a “passionate defender of what he imagines the Constitution to be.” He knows on a deep level that he has something valuable, even if he wouldn’t know what to do with it, and is unaware of its limitations. Perhaps he could be spurred by his passion to learn more. Perhaps he has ideas for his Constitution, and perhaps those ideas could themselves be perfected into a proposal for improvement. But as with the man fighting for his city wall, ignorant enthusiasm in defense of the Constitution is not likely to succeed. As Lincoln put it in a speech early in his career, defense of the Constitution must be, in the first place a “political religion,” a “state of feeling” taught to the “lisping babe” on the mother’s lap. But it must also make use of “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason,” the kind that dispels partisan illusions, like the one that tells us that the Constitution guarantees all our favorite policies, or prohibits all the ones we dislike. In short, our allegiance to the Constitution should, I believe, be both warm and wise. It should be affectionate enough to feel that the Constitution is essential to American political identity, but smart enough to see it clearly for what it is, from its flaws to its profound genius and enduring worth.
This article was written to commemorate the United States Constitution on Constitution Day. Southern Virginia Provost and Politics Professor Jeremiah John originally posted it on September 19, 2016.