Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

McClay on the use and abuse of history

Here’s the text of a wonderful lecture given at the Heritage Foundation (scroll down if you want to find a downloadable MP3 file). From smart critiques of a history that serves only to disconnect us from our past to celebrations of Lincoln’s own superior understanding of the role of history, this is a tour de force, Here’s something pretty close to a conclusion:

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to propose that the Constitution itself is our epic, or what passes for one, in function if not in form. It too functions as a text standing at the very core of our national identity. It too serves as a cultural mirror, in which a people is able to see what it is, and is reminded of what it was, and should be. It too is a vessel of American myth and memory. It is an amalgam of both creed and culture, particularly if read, as Lincoln insisted it should be, in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence. Although it does not narrate a shared story, it certainly presumes one, the long and complex Anglo-American experience that produced our understanding of constitutionalism, federalism, individual rights, religious liberty, and separation of powers.

The fact that it does not does not seek to personify the American experiment, does not make Washington the new Aeneas, or indeed name any names at all, may be precisely why it is peculiarly suited to be the object of republican veneration. People will always disagree, and properly so, about the veneration of any particular leader, perhaps even George Washington himself. But the Constitution itself ought to be another matter.

This is an important essay that deserves wide readership.

Discussions - 1 Comment

Outstanding article... too much beyond my power to reflect on in the time I have to do so...

"One could even say that a constitutional founding is a kind of covenant, a meta-promise entered into with the understanding that it has a uniquely powerful claim upon the future. It requires of us a willingness to be constantly looking back to our initiating promises and goals, in much the same way that we would chart progress or regress in our individual lives by reference to a master list of resolutions, or fend off temptation by remembering our marriage vows -- rather than rewriting the vows when someone really irresistible waltzes into the room. (Which is a good example of what it means to have a "living constitution.")

I would contend that an aspect of the american spirit is currently given toward rewritting vows... hence such a high divorce rate...people in the military who want out before they have completed the time they swore to do... exct... perhaps a reason for this is a greater sense that too much is possible, and also that what was once possible is no longer so... As individuals how do we create a master list of resolutions...

What if (as I contend is the case) our present reality is always much too subject to change to provide grounds for the sort of meta-promise that could have a uniquely powerfull claim upon our future?

In other words wasn’t it easier in the past? You married the girl next door, worked in the Ford Plant in the nearby city, raised kids in a single school district, and took them to the church where their grandfather was a deacon. Gone is the familly farm...and that kind of life...My grandfather and uncle who were farmers are dead, the familly now lives all across the United States. In other words the past is seperated from us by an "impassable chasm of contextual difference."

"I was too ignorant then to realize how remote the actual world of that mid-nineteenth-century audience was from that of my imagination." I particularily like Pirate Video games, but without a doubt being a pirate was much less glamourous and much more difficult.

I think it has more to do with a culmination of our current experiences...Our present as it exists reminds us more so than ever that the past is not so much like the present, we know this because we have already lived through more change than multiple generations faced in the past. An educated man cannot help but think that there exists a solid and orderly substratum, a rock-solid reality lying just beneath the illusory surfaces, waiting to be revealed in all its direct and unfeigned honesty when the facades and artifices are all stripped away. Remove the false, discard the day dreams, and face reality(don’t worry you can relive these in video games, role playing games and Romantic Fiction). Man no longer looks at paintings of a man fighting a dragon with appreaciation for that man’s bravery, in a literal sense because he knows that dragon’s don’t exist. But to know this is perhaps to face his own fears squarely. What is a dragon? how was the concept formed? Was it not the idea of a very large flying snake, that also blew fire? something that blows fire, fire was very destructive in the past... so was venom from a snake and to have to worry about one that could fly... and also horded treasure...

A man facing destructive elements and destroying them thereby claiming wealth and the love of the princess... We can understand what a dragon was without believing in them. When we stop believing in dragons and break them back down into the elements that made them then we have the rock solid reality lying beneath the illusory surface.

In other words Myth represents something, but that doesn’t mean that they actually happened or existed, but no myth can exist that is not itself constituted from facts, just as no immaginary creature that can be immagined can be made up of anything that does not exist. At least according to David Hume’s account of concept formation.... In fact I think that the author might be able to pin some of his critique on Hume, for it was he who gave birth to the positivists....

But let’s get back to the present. Far from vilifying Hume we should realize that the main problem the author faces is that there are a lack of stable building blocks available to create a meaningfull concept. In other words there is less power in "the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories" precisely because we don’t have a "sustained historical context" for the existance of a sustained historical consciousness...

Whatever that means.... long story short it is impossible to be swept away at the same time by the individuality of the individual and his experience, and by a shared connection with the past, although in a way one could even argue that we have as many shared connections with the past as have ever have existed, we nevertheless have less of these in common with our contemporaries.

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