On Monday afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the keynote speech of this year’s Teach-In titled "The Strength and Fragility of Constitutions" by the highly esteemed historian and constitutional studies scholar Gordon Wood. His curriculum vitae is about as impressive as they get: he graduated from Harvard, has taught at a long list of top-tier institutions and has published some of the cornerstone works in his field, one of which received a Pulitzer. His speech on Monday focused primarily on the roots of our Constitution, its assumptions and potential threats it might face, seen through the critical lens of John Adams’ perceptions of the nascent American republic in the late eighteenth century.
Adams, he told us, believed that the republican government required more out of its constituents than other forms of government with more concentrated power; in a monarchy, the level of virtue among average citizens has little effect on the success of the nation, but in a republic, the virtue of the laypeople directly influences how the nation conducts itself. In fact, Adams and Wood both seem to support the notion that civic virtue, or the willingness to forego one’s self-interest in order to act in favor of the public good, is the primary determining factor of a republic’s success.
This is the part of Wood’s argument that I found troubling. He went on to say that we can understand the failure of many republics around the world in the past century as a result of the lack of virtue among their populations, especially since many of their constitutions closely resembled that of the United States. If two governments operate on the same constitution, and one succeeds while the other fails, what could possibly be the deciding factor?
What was left out of this analysis was any notion that the demographical and cultural makeup of the different populations might have a significant impact on the way they interpreted and interacted with their constitutions. What was left out was the acknowledgment that the American constitution was created by and for the people who were to be living under it with inspiration from their cultural predecessors, whereas many constitutions of the past century were created by Western colonial powers and implemented on colonized peoples. What was left out was the disclaimer that “virtue” is inherently contextual and subjective.
Wood’s claim that recent failed republics resulted from a lack of civic virtue has a deeper significance than just a disagreement on semantics. To attribute the failure of a Western institution in a non-Western culture to an endemic moral shortcoming is one very short step away from a justification for oppression of entire categories of human beings. It is the same rhetoric used by colonizers and slave-holders alike (both of which, I’ll remind you, our beloved Founding Fathers were).
I want to be clear here that I don’t believe Wood intended to endorse colonialism or slavery in his speech on Monday. Rather, I think that in his well-intentioned efforts to instill some optimism for the fate of the American Constitution, he might have overlooked some underlying logical errors and biases that John Adams would have had when he was contemplating the new nation. Even Adams, as Wood stated, had serious doubts about whether or not the American people had enough virtue to sustain a republican government.
At the end of the speech, both Wood and our very own David Boren commented on the cornerstone ideal of the American republic: equality. They shared the sentiment that a large part of what makes our nation so successful is the fact that our patriotism finds no root in ethnicity and the belief that all are created equal. Wood spoke with admiration for early America’s ability to integrate people from an array of countries—Sweden, Germany, Britain, France, Ireland—without threatening the basis of the American identity. Sure, he noted, the equality only extended to males of European descent, but it was at least more than could be said for other countries at the time.
This was where I got lost again. I was confounded that two such highly respected minds couldn’t seem to recognize that the Founding Fathers’ version of equality was fundamentally predicated on inequality, and that that fact required much more than a passing nod in the conversation of what it means to be truly American. Without acknowledging and analyzing the role that demographics played in the drafting of our constitution, it is impossible to assess its ability to accommodate the increasingly diverse population in a way that represents our belief in equality for all.
If we are truly to take up the responsibility of pursuing the civic virtue that is required of us as citizens of a republic, that will require us to seek out the truth about our institutions and our history, even if that means asking questions that make us uncomfortable. If we are truly to attribute the American spirit to the belief that all human beings are created equal, we must be willing to confront the elements of our constitution that contradict that belief.
Wood ended his speech with an intriguing question for the audience. John Adams, he said, believed that the lack of virtue among the American population would almost inevitably lead to the executive powers of the government to become positions of inheritance, since the electoral process would be so vulnerable to corruption and abuse. Whatever present fears we may have for the sanctity of our constitution, Wood asked us, can we really say that it is as bad as it was then?
Now that I’ve had a chance to really think through this question, I find that the best answer might be another question. In light of our current political situation, in which our current president has appointed his unqualified family members to high positions of power, has launched rhetorical attacks against entire branches of the U.S. government and has opposed the right of public figures to peacefully protest the National Anthem ... can we really say that it is any better? And either way, can we say that it has anything to do with our virtue?