Two hundred twenty-three years ago yesterday, thirty-nine men signed the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia. Only days before autumn arrived, the proposed constitution made its way to the various United States for approval and ratification. One would be hard pressed to find a summer more dedicated to pursing the American experiment of liberty under law. For sweltering months in a small room, fifty-five men debated with one another fiercely about the nature and purpose of law, about its manifestations, and about the practical necessities of governance, interest, and virtue.
Only blocks away, another set of men, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, unanimously passed another bedrock of republican law, the Northwest Ordinance.
“Any tolerable order in politics necessarily is a bundle of compromises among interests and classes, and a principal merit of the Framers was their ready recognition of this ineluctable fact,” Russell Kirk wrote in one of his last books, The Conservative Constitution (republished as Rights and Duties). “Broadly speaking, it was the body of men familiar with America’s provincial and local governments who made both the Revolution and the Constitution. Long participation in provincial and local public affairs shaped this American natural aristocracy.” [Rights and Duties, 63]
Kirk’s barely remembered book is a gem. In it, Kirk dealt with the issue of revolution and how it should be defined properly, the various personalities shaping and shaped by the ratification of the constitution, and the profundity of the western tradition and the natural law as found in the American experience.
Not surprisingly—given it is a book by Kirk—a number of heroes emerge; among them, John Marshall and Joseph Story.
For the entirety of his career, Kirk has pursued an understanding of what made a republic function properly. Toward the end of his life, he became intensely interested in constitutional issues and even served as an expert witness for cases dealing with religious freedom and first amendment rights.
This book, a monument not only to the genius of the American founding but also to the integrity of Kirk as a citizen of a res publica, provides a solid and engaging read from page one to its conclusion.
And, again, as it is a book by Russell Kirk, one should not be surprised to find some of his best writing in the epilogue, “The Constitution and the Antagonist World.”
Beginning with the horrific events of 1914, Kirk argued, order became disorder. “Constitutions written and unwritten have been subverted almost overnight by conventions of political fanatics, and innovating substitute constitutions in their turn have been expunged within a few years, making way for yet more novel political structures—no less evanescent….Among great powers, only the American Republic has not deliberating altered its general frame of government—neither the formal written Constitution of the United States not the unwritten constitution.” [Rights and Duties, 249-250]
While a country needs an effective constitution reflective of its own specific religious, cultural, and legal traditions, it also needs a public vigilant and jealous of its rights and ready to defend those rights through duty and virtue. “No civilization endures forever; no national constitution can itself sustain a people bend upon private pleasures.” [Rights and Duties, 252]
Should the people not remember such truths, the population will likely find the constitution a body without a soul, an abstraction at best, a soft despotism demanding conformity at worst.
Americans have survived, Kirk reminded us in the concluding paragraph, because of the tradition handed to them by the sacrifice of their fathers and mothers. Should we remember this, practice it in our own lives, and teach our children to do the same, the constitution in its fullness can be recovered, a body alive and dancing, animated by a spirit of duty and generosity.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.