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The Constitution Still Stands
The US Constitution is the great achievement of America and in the drama of Western civilization. The struggle for its preservation against Utopian corrosion continues today.
In Frank Meyer’s essay “Western Civilization: the Problem of Political Freedom,” he extols the U.S. Constitution, signed 236 years ago today, as the final act of a civilizational struggle that began with the ancient Greeks and Israelites. The revelation made by both these people was that man’s nature bridged the temporal and the transcendent–that “man has always been, as Aristotle long ago saw, part animal, part spiritual.”
The Constitution, as Meyer saw it, was the culmination of a millenia-long struggle to recognize this nature and frame a system of governance capable of defending it. Free from the residual effects of Europe’s “cosmological civilizations” the people of the United States would be free to uphold the tension between what they are and what they were made to be.
236 years later, America’s desire to uphold this tension is increasingly tenuous. And as it fades, our commitment to the Constitution continues to unravel. These developments, to be sure, are nothing new.
The Europeanization of American politics began a century-plus ago, with the election of Woodrow Wilson and the advent of progressive technocracy, innovations Wilson openly borrowed from German bureaucrats. FDR built on this legacy with his leviathanic explosion of the administrative and welfare states. Lyndon Johnson did the same with his Great Society Programs. The utopians, as Frank Meyer called them, came not in 2016 but in 1912.
What is different about the current moment, however, is that it is not solely the left that slouches into Europe. With the ascendancy of Donald Trump and the fracturing of American conservatism that followed, more and more Americans and their thought leaders dispense with even cursory lip service to American constitutionalism. New forces, both right and left, openly disregard the U.S. Constitution. Instead, they play power politics, threatening to impose their visions from on high with no regard for our traditions.
Such a development should not be surprising given the state of the United States today. Basic civic understanding is severely lacking across the landscape of our society. Only 15% of Americans know when the Constitution was written. 25% know how many amendments there are. The failure to properly educate our fellow citizens on what their inheritance entails has predictably led to Americans of all stripes rejecting that inheritance.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, our failure to uphold our written constitution is connected to our failure to uphold our unwritten ones. John Adams famously said that the Constitution was made for a moral and religious people, and would fail to govern a people of any other kind. It is not hard to survey the American landscape and surmise that, as a people, we are failing to uphold that lofty standard. A people can be virtuous and self-governing, or they will be ruled. It increasingly appears to be the case that the United States will choose the latter.
Despite all of this, there is still cause for hope. The American people are resilient, with a constitution to reflect that. Our great tradition of self-governance can be restored. But that requires us to return to where we began. Without a thorough understanding of our constitution and its outgrowths, we cannot begin to defend and uphold it as we should. The great drama that Frank Meyer wrote of has not ended yet, but for it to continue, we must know the roles we were meant to play.
In closing, I offer a passage from the first Federalist Paper, written at a time when the Constitution was being debated for the first time:
“It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
This important question, despite our dire situation today, remains undecided.
Scott Howard is an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. An alumnus intern of National Review, he is currently an Editor at Lone Conservative and volunteers as an Associate Editor for the Freemen News-Letter. @ConservaMuse