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Our Dignified Constitution

Fourth of July reflections on the Queen’s Jubilee.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The Americans, he observes, could not have become monarchical, even if the Constitutional Convention had so desired, because the people lack “the mystic allegiance, the religious reverence, which are essential to a true monarchy.” Elsewhere, however, describing the clumsy technicalities and “absurd fictions” invoked to amend the U.S. Constitution, he likens the Americans to “trustees carrying out a misdrawn will,” hampered “by the old words of an old testament.” The Constitution as an “old testament”—surely this suggests something like a mystic or religious “reverence,” not unlike that characterizing a monarchy. 

 Rebutting Bagehot, an American might defend the separation of powers as making for a government at least as efficient as the English, and might find in the Constitution itself a quality that has all the dignity, even the reverence, he attributes to the monarchy. Indeed, an American might venture to suggest that the Constitution—not one part of it but the whole of it—is a more reliable source of dignity and reverence than the monarchy, precisely because it is not dependent upon the personal character of a monarch. Not all English monarchs, after all, have displayed the dignity or warranted the reverence of the present Queen. Americans recall all too well the less than admirable monarch who presided over England to such ill effect at the time of the Revolution.

Bagehot has only two passing references to George Washington, the president who deliberately refused to assume, in his person or public role, anything suggestive of a monarch. Instead, in his Farewell Address, Washington took the occasion to pay tribute to the Constitution. The Constitution, he reminded his “Friends and Fellow Citizens,” must be obeyed by all because it is “sacredly obligatory upon all”—“sacredly” going beyond the merely “dignified.” Almost half a century later, the young Abraham Lincoln, speaking to a young men’s society in Springfield, Illinois, on the subject of “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” echoed that sentiment: “Let reverence for the laws .  .  . become the political religion. .  .  . Let those materials [founded in reason] be molded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws (italics in the original). Again, “reverence”—not for a person but for a Constitution that transcends persons, as it also transcends parties, politics, and all the other divisive tendencies that afflict government.

Concluding the famous Federalist 10, James Madison beseeched his countrymen to create in the Union “a Republican remedy for the diseases most incident to Republican Government.” The Constitution itself is part of that remedy. It has to be interpreted, to be sure, most notably by the Supreme Court. But the justices of the Court, whatever their private views, have to defend their rulings by appealing to the Constitution. This is their final authority, their “Old Testament”—as it is of the American polity as a whole.

It is that Testament that we celebrate on the Fourth of July. Our festivities might lack the drama or pageantry of the Queen’s Jubilee; they occur, after all, annually, and do not have to await a sixtieth anniversary (or fiftieth, the Golden Jubilee, a decade ago). But they are every bit as jubilant, and deservedly so, for they pay tribute to a republic presided over by a Constitution worthy of the dignity—and, yes, reverence—we have bestowed upon it.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of The Moral Imagination and, most recently, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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