Is the Constitution more than America’s primary legal document? The idea of a plan of government being contained in a written document is so taken for granted that it is rarely noted and seldom seen as an innovation, argued Jim Ceaser of the University of Virginia during his AEI lecture on Tuesday evening. Yet, noted Ceaser, during the founding era, the development of a written constitution was counted as a major innovation of great theoretical import.
Given the centrality of public consent at the time, only by accessing a written text could Americans — assembled in different places at different times — exercise their consent. Nonetheless, continued Ceaser, the significance of a written constitution goes beyond this mere requirement: The Constitution assumed the highest authority because the government’s authority derived from it.
Ceaser clarified, however, that the attitude with which the people regard the Constitution is just as important as the idea of a written constitution. For Americans specifically, the Constitution ought to be regarded with reverence and veneration because the respect for government this engendered helped give birth to a community and to supply a bond of attachment that helped bind the nation together.
Ceaser noted that Federalist No. 49 promotes this very idea — the idea that perhaps the greatest innovation in politics is to attach reverence to the Constitution and, in doing so, to attach reverence to the whole structure and plan of government that the Constitution promotes. Ceaser concluded that mirroring this reverence in a reasoned way is the proper spirit in which to observe Constitution Day.
The US Constitution is “the supreme law of the land” that establishes the framework of the federal government, determines its powers, and delineates a set of basic rights. But beyond its primary legal role, the Constitution — with the supporting commentary of “The Federalist Papers” — may be counted one of the major interlocutors in the discipline of political theory, engaging many of the fundamental questions of political life and entering into dialogue with other well-known authors and positions.
Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceaser, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.
If you are unable to attend, we welcome you to watch the event live on this page. Full video will be posted within 24 hours.
Gary J. Schmitt, AEI
James Ceaser, University of Virginia
Adjournment and Wine and Cheese Reception
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James W. Ceaser is the Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and has held visiting professorships at the University of Florence, University of Basel, University of Oxford, University of Bordeaux, and University of Rennes. He is the author of several books, including “Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), “Nature and History in American Political Development” (Harvard University Press, 2008), “Liberal Democracy and Political Science” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), and “Presidential Selection” (Princeton University Press, 1979). He is coauthor, with Andrew Busch, of “After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and “The Perfect Tie: the True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), among numerous other books. Ceaser is a frequent contributor to the popular press and comments on American politics for Voice of America.
Gary J. Schmitt is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI and the director of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Schmitt is a former staff director of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He was executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during former President Ronald Reagan’s second term. Schmitt’s security work focuses on longer-term strategic issues that will affect America’s security at home and its ability to lead abroad, while his work in the area of citizenship focuses on challenges to maintaining and sustaining a strong civic culture in America. His books include “Safety, Liberty and Islamist Terrorism: American and European Approaches to Domestic Counterterrorism” (AEI Press, 2010), “The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition” (Encounter Books, 2009), “Of Men and Materiel: The Crisis in Military Resources” (AEI Press, 2007), “Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence” (Potomac Books Inc., 2002), and “U.S. Intelligence at the Crossroads: Agendas for Reform” (Brassey’s Inc., 1995). Schmitt is also coauthor, with Cheryl Miller, of the forthcoming volume “Trendsetting Charter Schools: Raising the Bar for Civic Education” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).