Constitution Day

Our government department always celebrates Constitution Day and today (a bit late) they brought back one of their favorites, H. W. Brands. His talk was aimed at our students; he walked a quite straight line describing constitutional interpretations. I felt that noting the founders knew nothing of airplanes might be interesting, but is a straw man. Still, he kept his poise on that tightrope. He could aim a little higher, it seems to me, but no one can fault his passion and enthusiasm.

And I’m grateful, finding pleasure in “Capitalism, Democracy, and the Constitution” which noted that 1776 was the date of both “manifestos” – the Declaration of Independence and The Wealth of Nations. Each semester I yoke these (with religion and speech and the press) as part of the “open marketplace” with its confidence in the eventual and incremental wisdom of our nation. (Perhaps someone who puts on his biography that he spent some time traveling in the West selling cutlery is likely to see this juxtaposition in a way few others nominated for Pulitzers do.)

The Tea Party seems to signal, more than anything else, that old confidence in our nation’s ability, over the long term and given sufficient openness to experience, to find what works, what is, what is true.

The greatest problem with our popular culture is not that it is superficial – why wouldn’t it be? Nor that it is leftist – as irritating as that may be. It is because so much about it is designed to reduce that optimism, that strength, that willingness to test out experience, to be resolute. Our popular culture too often whines. I am slowly wending my way through The Federalist Papers (each year I start again, it seems to me); their attempt to understand human nature is a model of not only wisdom but far sightedness. However if our emphasis is not on the human nature we share but the factors we don’t, then such wisdom has less importance.

My husband argues that the Victorians did much to restrain man’s natural tendency toward violence and constrained it (and I suspect a good deal of sexual impulse) toward more productive ends. (I’ve long felt that such an approach to The Federalist Papers would be a worthy project; but then, I’ve also spent years arguing that someone should study Korbel and his diverse influence on his daughter and Condoleezza Rice. We all have our pet projects; mine, apparently, are ones neither I nor anyone else wants to domesticate.)

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