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2014 Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture: The Constitution as Political Theory

Friday, October 10th, 2014

The Constitution as political theory   YouTubeIs the Constitution more than America’s primary legal document? The idea of a plan of government being contained in a written document is so taken for granted that it is rarely noted and seldom seen as an innovation, argued Jim Ceaser of the University of Virginia during his AEI lecture on Tuesday evening. Yet, noted Ceaser, during the founding era, the development of a written constitution was counted as a major innovation of great theoretical import.
Given the centrality of public consent at the time, only by accessing a written text could Americans — assembled in different places at different times — exercise their consent. Nonetheless, continued Ceaser, the significance of a written constitution goes beyond this mere requirement: The Constitution assumed the highest authority because the government’s authority derived from it.

Ceaser clarified, however, that the attitude with which the people regard the Constitution is just as important as the idea of a written constitution. For Americans specifically, the Constitution ought to be regarded with reverence and veneration because the respect for government this engendered helped give birth to a community and to supply a bond of attachment that helped bind the nation together.

Ceaser noted that Federalist No. 49 promotes this very idea — the idea that perhaps the greatest innovation in politics is to attach reverence to the Constitution and, in doing so, to attach reverence to the whole structure and plan of government that the Constitution promotes. Ceaser concluded that mirroring this reverence in a reasoned way is the proper spirit in which to observe Constitution Day.

Ceaser noted that Federalist No. 49 promotes this very idea — the idea that perhaps the greatest innovation in politics is to attach reverence to the Constitution and, in doing so, to attach reverence to the whole structure and plan of government that the Constitution promotes. Ceaser concluded that mirroring this reverence in a reasoned way is the proper spirit in which to observe Constitution Day.

Watch: The Constitution as Political Theory

AEI