George Thomas the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College wrote for the Bulwark:
The American founding was imperfect. America’s founders
weren’t just aware of the point, they insisted on it: “I never expect to see
a perfect work from imperfect man.” This bit of wisdom was central to the
founding. In contrast, today, Republicans, continuing their departure from any
serious understanding of American
ideas and history,
have taken to insisting that teaching about a flawed founding threatens the
of the republic.
That would be news to the founders, who were often the
Constitution’s most perceptive critics.
In his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention, the only speech from
the Convention to be published at the time, Benjamin Franklin confessed that he
entirely approve of this Constitution at the present.” Yet he acknowledged
his own fallibility, noting that in time he might come to change his mind, and,
given the circumstances, it wasn’t clear the Convention could “do better” than
it had. This is no small thing, but inherent in the political philosophy of
leading founders. To insist on a perfect founding is to misapprehend the
thought of the founders themselves. The founders rejected the notion of a
perfect political order. They built from low but solid ground by insisting on
imperfection as an inescapable feature of political institutions crafted by
human beings. And they built from experience, learning from the past, but
knowing full well that the future was likely to require adjustments and improvements
to our political institutions.
Championing the Constitution to the citizenry in The
Federalist Papers, James Madison insisted we must make a choice for “the GREATER, not the
PERFECT good.” In the closing paper, Alexander Hamilton reiterated
the point, noting the Constitution was “the best which our
political situation, habits, and opinions will admit.” It is not simply, in
Madison’s famous words, that men are not angels.
Nor is it, again in Madison’s words, that we cannot always trust that
will be at the helm. Both points are true. The deeper point echoes
Franklin’s insight that perfection is an impossibility in crafting political
institutions, which inevitably require
compromises that bow to reality. And there will always be gaps between
political practices and political aspirations, as well as contingencies that
the Constitution’s framers simply did not anticipate.
Adjustments to the Constitution were needed almost
immediately. The Twelfth Amendment stipulated separate electoral votes for the
president and vice-president after the problematic election of 1800 where Aaron
Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s running mate, got the same number of electoral votes
as Jefferson throwing the presidential election into the House of
Representatives. As the founding generation learned how elections actually
operated under the new Constitution, innovations like political parties came to
be defended as a necessary constitutional development even if the Constitution
had tried to rise above them. Such adjustments were expected to be—and have
been—a fairly routine feature of American politics.
Yet far and away the most evident constitutional shortcoming
was the reality of American slavery. An emerging republic that insisted that
all men were created equal, creating a self-governing polity based on that
principle, also allowed for the enslaving of fellow human beings. To call
slavery an imperfection or flaw is a colossal understatement.
The struggle over slavery has been at the root of American
constitutionalism from the beginning. Slavery presented a constitutional
disharmony between the idea of equality and the reality of slavery. As the
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz frames it in No Property in Man, “the
paradox—of a Constitution that strengthened and protected slavery yet refused
to validate it—created what have been perceived as the Constitution’s
confounding ambiguities over slavery.” If American ideas pointed to equality
and anti-slavery—at the Constitutional Convention Madison called American
most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man”—American political
institutions empowered slavery and thereby perpetuated a brutal and violent
Many of the leading founders were in principle opposed to
slavery—and particularly slavery rooted in race—but this was often an abstract
position, with little actual political effort to undo slavery. They seem to
have given even less thought to what equality and citizenship would entail for
Black Americans (Franklin
being a possible exception here). The difficult work of anti-slavery
constitutionalism had to be taken up by others, and often against our deeply
imperfect political institutions that empowered the proslavery position, giving
its voice more weight in constitutional terms than it would have had absent the
three-fifths compromise and the Electoral College.
The new birth of freedom that Abraham Lincoln extolled in
Address required the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments,
which amounted to a second founding. It was this second founding that made the
first founding worthy of being saved. Much like the founders before them, those
who ushered in a second founding learned from experience, working to improve an
imperfect Constitution. At Gettysburg, Lincoln cast the nation as
“conceived in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men were
created equal.” Lincoln’s effort was to complete the “unfinished work” of the
founding generation. If Lincoln cast this “unfinished work” as an effort to
restore America to its foundations, to a nation dedicated to the proposition
that all men are created equal, this was an effort to return to something real,
but that never actually existed—only the promise of it did.
Making this promise real has been the work of generations.
Our pluralistic constitutional democracy is an outgrowth of
the constitutional republic launched by the founders. Madisonian constitutionalism,
in particular, paved the way for a vibrant and pluralistic constitutional
democracy that was not defined by religious, racial, or ethnic identity. But
that project was imperfect and incomplete at the founding. It has been carried
forward by Americans who sought to make a deeply imperfect union more perfect.
This work continues in our day, and we are better prepared for this work as we
make our way in the present if we have a genuine sense of our (imperfect) past.
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