September 17 was Constitution Day—one of our least recognized and even less well understood—national holidays. But we at the Ashbrook Center have a tradition of celebrating the day in a serious way; with a speaker and a series of campus wide discussions. This year during one of those events, a foreign student approached and began engaging me in some big questions. “Why,” he demanded to know, “is your Constitution so complex?” “Moreover,” he continued, “why do you Americans spend so much time talking about it and studying it?”
I was not shocked by his questions as many Americans might be. Most Americans probably can’t imagine political discourse without some reference—whether genuine or disingenuous—to the Constitution. It is such a part of our political frame of reference that to question it is almost like asking, “Why do you breathe air?” What else would politics be about? What else would we breathe?
But Constitutionalism—in the American sense—is a concept that is perfectly foreign in most other places. It is a concept that is foreign even—or perhaps most especially—among otherwise democratic peoples. This student, for example, argued that our Constitution seems to undermine our principle of consent. Americans, he said, claim consent is necessary to establish legitimate government and to secure natural rights. But the Constitution seems to limit their power and the extent of their consent through the rules it imposes on the operation of democracy. The Constitution, he argued, divides the people’s power and makes the government less responsive to the demands of the people. The famous “checks and balances” and the division of sovereignty between the states and the federal government all tend to make government slow and elusive. “How can this be called democratic government?” he asked.
First, I told him that he was correct. It is right to question whether the United States should be called a “democratic” government. There is a reason why many have always preferred to call it self-government or republican government, and especially constitutional government. It is a massive fact of our politics, and of our character, that Americans think our natural liberty is better secured through the Constitution than without it.
The truth is that the American people, in creating the Constitution, transformed themselves into something better than they were without it. They understood that democratic regimes are prone to various tendencies and vices. When majorities rule unchecked, the grasping for power that this occasions can also be unchecked. The American people were correct to believe that the Constitution offered a remedy.
The Framers moved us from being simply democratic or majoritarian in an arithmetic sense into being a constitutional or self-governed people. They intentionally and thoughtfully crafted a structure that would incline the people—force them even—to become more thoughtful and more deliberative in their decision-making. The architecture of the Constitution means to slow down the process of governing and to discourage passion and interest. It elevates political struggles to the level of deliberation and transforms popularity contests into choice. With deliberation and choice rather than simple passion and interest as their guides, the people incline more readily toward justice, or, if you like, toward a more permanent and aggregate interest of the community.
This is what we mean by self-government. And there is something quite reassuring and comforting in it (even as it is carried out imperfectly today—and, indeed, always). This serious attempt at self-government writ large is akin to our individual struggle for mastery of the self. Constitutionalism is not that far from how a human being governs his own person—how he controls his passions. Passions are first controlled and educated by one’s parents. Later, with much effort, a human being persuades himself that it is actually better for him to control his own anger, along with his other passions. He thus becomes both more reasonable as he becomes more self-controlled. In this way of governing his passions he becomes both a better human being and a better citizen.
The Constitution—and I repeat a massive fact—is a deliberative creation of the people. And the people originally knew (as we should continually remind ourselves) that in creating it and limiting themselves, they transformed themselves into something better than they would have been without it. The Constitution demands a certain discipline from us, a discipline that makes us more reasonable than we would be without it. It addresses Jefferson’s adage that the majority has a right to rule but, in order for the majority for be “rightful,” it must also be reasonable. It connects our rights and obligations to our duty to consent to our own rule, and to abide by the same laws that we ourselves make. The Constitution governs us as we ought to govern ourselves. This is the height of rational self-government.
The discipline the Constitution demands from us gives us both the means and the authority to be self-governing. It establishes a kind of constitutional morality that encourages the people to be both vigilant and virtuous. And through this discipline we the people—who can be very dangerous and demanding when excited or angry—are transformed into something better than we would be without it. We Americans are a constitutional people. And this is worth talking about and studying as we try to become better citizens. And so we do. Happy Constitution Day.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.