Cokie Roberts, a celebrated radio and television commentator, once participated in a discussion concerning congressional term limits and commented on American solidarity (or the lack thereof). She stated, “We have nothing binding us together as a nation—no common ethnicity, history, religion or even language—except the Constitution and the institutions it created.” This is a curious comment, which continues to engender many questions. The primary question is whether the Constitution, in and of itself, can really do that for which she gives it credit. Better yet, can any written document, regardless how formative, bind a nation and its people together?
Antifederalists formed the initial wall of opposition in 1787 to the newly proposed Constitution. Sounding a note from the French political philosopher Montesquieu, they objected to the idea that a territory so vast as America, and a people so accustomed to their own regions of the country, could ever be bound together by one representative government authorized by a single Constitution. Mercy Otis Warren of Massachusetts, the sister of James Otis, regarded the objection as an “insuperable” one. George Mason of Virginia was quick to echo that genuine representation “breaks down when the territory is so large.” Melancton Smith of New York insisted that “a free people cannot be governed over such an extensive territory and plan” and predicted that, under the proposed Constitution, state liberties would “not be violently wrested from the people…[but would] be undermined and gradually consumed.”
How the Federalists, who were the chief architects and supporters of the Constitution, responded to this objection is notable. They did not defend the document by arguing, as Ms. Roberts does, that the Constitution in and of itself provides the mortar necessary to bind the states together. No, they advanced a communitarian argument. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania emphasized that the proposed constitutional regime was feasible by virtue of the homogeneity of the American people, “drawn together by religion, blood, language, manners and customs, undisturbed by former feuds or prejudices.”
John Jay of New York made the same point:
“With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”
The truth of the matter is that America’s sense of community is not now, nor has it ever been, predicated upon the Constitution. Robert A. Dahl, Yale University political science professor, notes that a constitutional system is a reflection of a people’s identity and needs “to be tailored to fit the culture, traditions, needs, and possibilities of a particular country.” For this reason he maintains that the American constitutional system “is probably not suitable for export to other countries.” He points out that, although our Constitution and the institutions it created were in place for over a half century, the Civil War still occurred, thanks to “the extreme polarization in interests, values, and ways of life between the citizens of the slave states and those of the free states.” The professor observes that he “cannot imagine any democratic constitution under which the two sections [North and South] could have continued to coexist peacefully in one country.”
If the American people are the chicken and their Constitution the egg, then for Professor Dahl the chicken came first. It will not do to ascribe the sense of community to the power of a single solitary document, even one that is foundational. A scheme of government, including a declaration of rights, is a reflection of a people’s traditions, habits, mores, and customs, and arises from deep within their very soul.
Perhaps, then, the next step is to look to the people themselves and to the ideal of “democracy” as the means by which to account for the nation’s sense of community.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Intercollegiate Review. It is an excerpt from “America’s Lost Sense of Community” by L. Scott Smith, originally published in the Modern Age Vol. 54, Nos. 1-4, Winter-Fall 2012.