No People? No Constitution!

No People? No Constitution!

A constitution exists only for so long as there exists a people capable of sustaining it. The formal institutions of a constitutional arrangement may still exist even after the citizen body capable of bearing it has ceased to exist. In an age of polarization and identity politics, many wonder whether the United States is still an e pluribus unum. The more pertinent question, however, is whether the Constitution designed for such a people still exists. In our previous symposium on this site, concerning the question of American national character, nothing was more powerfully reinforced than the possibility that the United States consists, at best, of several peoples rather than one people. Whether one assesses this issue from the point of the historical development of the United States or the contemporary embarrassments of public discourse, the same image emerges: the United States may not consist of “one people.”

That observation says much about the beliefs and habits of the people. It says far more about the question of national character and the characters of the citizens making up the nation. There is no suggestion that the people of the United States are not by nature capable of exhibiting the character required for national existence within the framework of self-government. It was settled at the Founding that humankind is capable of “establishing good government from reflection and choice.” However, inasmuch as the preservation of good government depends upon the demonstration of that character appropriate to the task—as George Washington, among others, articulated it—then would follow that such a citizen body does not exist where the correlative character has ceased to exist.

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