The American founders signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and gave our country the form of government they thought best suited to the pursuit of authentic happiness by a people of enormous talent yet fallen nature. The mixed form of government they envisioned drew, directly and indirectly, from the best sources of political thought from classical times through early modernity. Here, after the failure of the Articles of Confederation, came a government configured to the practical realization of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which for its part had, as Jefferson later wrote, expressed old truths in the American mind and spirit.
Despite the fact that the Constitution retains its place in the National Archives, much about the country it rules and the way we view the Constitution itself has changed. Among many dangers facing our constitutional order today, a serious one is the decline of the family in America. And while that may not seem to be a constitutional problem, it is. Richard Garnett recently wrote:
Today, most constitutions aim to protect authentic human freedom by entrenching human rights and putting them beyond the reach of ordinary politics. This is a good idea and a sound practice. But it is not enough. Human rights and human flourishing depend not only on enforceable constraints on government but also on the pluralistic structure of the social order, a structure in which … the family–neither entirely public nor entirely private–is both protector and protected.
Law is “of, by, and for” the people–for real human persons. The project of promoting persons’ flourishing–their real goods–will, necessarily, proceed on the basis of some “anthropological” assumptions about what it means to be human, about who and what people are, and about what they are made for. The project can only succeed if these assumptions are true.
Our founders assumed crucial things about their nation: the importance of the family and other “mediating institutions” or organizations between individual persons and government, the importance of virtue to happiness and political order, etc. When these assumptions are called into doubt, so is the ordered liberty that the Constitution sought to preserve.
IWP teaches our students about the assumptions and the principles that are the basis for the success, or failure, of our constitutional order and the policies that should flow from it. More than ever, those who value freedom and equality as the founders understood them must also know and live by these truths. Only doing that will ensure the future success of our most extraordinary Constitution.
Prof. Joseph R. Wood teaches American Founding Principles and Foreign Policy (IWP 608) and Western Moral Tradition and World Politics (IWP 615).