September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States. On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention approved the draft of the Constitution that would be sent to the states for ratification. The Convention thereby kicked off, not only the debates over ratification (which resulted in the Constitution’s establishment as the supreme law of the land), but the continuing debates over the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution.
By law (thanks, Sen. Byrd!), institutions of higher learning are expected to observe Constitution Day in some way.
This year, at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, we hosted Dr. Ryan MacPherson, Associate Professor of History at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.
Dr. Ryan MacPherson
Dr. MacPherson delivered an outstanding address built around the theme “7 Things Every College (or University) Student Ought to Know.” I suspect Dr. MacPherson would assert that all citizens–with degrees or without–should know these points, too.
In the interest of some public education, then, here are Dr. MacPherson’s 7 points:
1. The U.S. Constitution is a written document. Not a lived tradition, like the British constitutional system.
2. The U.S. Constitution was designed for a republic, not for a democracy. MacPherson distinguished between representatives governing for the common good, rather than having sheer numbers determining all questions.
3. The framers of the U.S. Constitution shared a common tradition of natural law, supportive of natural rights. I thought this was a good formulation that sought to connect “natural law” discourse with Lockean “natural rights” talk.
4. The U.S. Constitution was unique in separating the three powers of government. The framers were great fans of Montesquieu, the French theorist, who advocated separating legislative, executive, and judicial power. The U.S. Constitution divided these powers even more than did Great Britain, which Montesquieu had praised in his Spirit of the Laws.
5. The framers of the U.S. Constitution purposefully designed the electoral college. MacPherson offered a spirited defense of the electoral college, which I appreciated. A parallel that MacPherson used that seemed appropriate: “If you believe the World Series is fair for baseball, then you should believe the electoral college is fair for presidential elections.” There, the emphasis is on games won, not cumulative score. So, with the presidency, the goal is to win states. MacPherson did allow that the electoral system could be tweaked to proportion electors according to congressional district, rather than winner-take-all.
6. Over time, the U.S. Constitution has become less federal and more national. Here, MacPherson spent a lot of time explaining the effects of the Incorporation Doctrine of the 14th Amendment.
7. The U.S. Constitution remains a monument to humanity’s quest for ordered liberty. MacPherson asserted his belief that the Constitution provided for a fruitful balance of order and liberty. He concluded by challenging the audience to take up the responsibility of being custodians of American liberty.
Dr. MacPherson has posted his excellent hand-out and an earlier version of the talk on his personal website, here. It’s well worth your time to listen to it.
Also, I’m sure Dr. MacPherson would be happy to come speak in other venues. He offers a great presentation.
For commentators, what do you make of those 7 points?