George Thomas is Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College and a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist.
The last few years have reminded us of the importance of civic virtue. Not so much a robust dedication to public life, but the more modest and pedestrian virtues we have long taken for granted: following the law and rules of the political order, not treating your political opponents as enemies, respecting the truth, not lying to your supporters, and the like. It’s hard to even think of these as virtues. Yet we’ve learned that such basic virtues and attitudes are essential to the healthy functioning of our political institutions. What we’ve learned, if I can turn institutional scholarship on its head, is that our institutions are embedded in ideas. For our political institutions to work, we have to agree on certain ideas and norms that, in ordinary circumstances, we simply take for granted.
Institutional mechanisms like checks and balances depend on ideas about government. We have learned that an institutional device like impeachment, which can remove and disqualify a president from holding office in the future, only works if members of Congress think they have a duty to hold presidents accountable for their behavior. We have learned that the peaceful institutional transfer of power depends on a willingness to voluntarily acknowledge you lost an election and acquiesce to that loss, stepping aside and stepping down to let the other party exercise institutional power. These are only the most obvious examples. Jonathan Rauch details how these changes in our ideas and attitudes may amount to informal constitutional amendments. This is nothing new. Changes in our ideas shape how our political institutions function.
While we tend to worry about the failure of our political institutions—and rightly so—our greatest failures of the last few years have been failures of political leadership. The institutional power was there to be exercised, but it depended on accepting political ideas; it depended on a modicum of civic virtue. The president, even if from your own party, may not use the power of the state to punish and lie about political opponents. The president, even from your own party, must accept the election results. The president, even from your own party, must not call for violence to overturn the results of a free and fair election. By declining to be bound by civic norms that underpin institutional power, large portions of America’s elected officials have failed to deliver the sort of leadership our constitutional institutions depend on.
But how to cultivate this sort of leadership? How to cultivate a civic spirit that puts a sense of the public good ahead of personal and partisan interests? While the Constitution depends on some level of civic virtue, it does not provide for it. This problem has been with us from the beginning. As James Madison put it in Federalist 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers of men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” We tend to focus on this second part: how to contain power and keep it virtuous. And the answer is usually understood to be checks and balances. Yet notice that Madison places this second. We must first attempt to secure good leaders even if, as he famously puts it, we cannot trust that they will always be at the helm. While the large republic and system of separated power was supposed to provide the space where better leaders would rise to the top, this was only a partial solution. Madison hoped that education would complement the Constitution.
Not only would education foster certain kinds of political leadership, it was the primary way to pass on constitutional knowledge and values from one generation to the next. Madison advocated establishing a national university to this end. Along with Thomas Jefferson, he was also instrumental in establishing the University of Virginia as a “learned institution” that would help perpetuate civic and political education. Cultivating civic attitudes and understandings is essential to maintaining American constitutional democracy. Just how we do this is the subject of an interesting debate that I’ve written on before in thinking about civic education.
But increasingly, we do not do much of it at all. Rather than focusing on history and civics, as Danielle Allen and Paul Carrese note as part of the Educating for American Democracy Initiative, we tend to focus on economic competitiveness and national security, which has led to a preoccupation with STEM. Similar preoccupations creep into higher education, even while most of these institutions take cultivating civic minded leadership as part of their educational mission.
This imbalance has eclipsed the teaching of American history in particular. Civic education includes far more than history, but history is a good place to begin. Americans increasingly have little sense of their history, which can make it difficult for us to grasp how unique, say, the peaceful transfer of political power is historically speaking. When President John Adams stepped down from power because Thomas Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800, it was an historical moment. So, too, was January 6th when the peaceful transfer of power was disrupted for the first time in our history.
By way of our history, we can witness the articulation of American ideals like equality and liberty, but, just as importantly, the actual struggle to bring them to life—however imperfectly. Here 1619 and 1776 can come together, so to speak. If the political ideals we value are pronounced in Declaration of Independence, they were pronounced in an historical context that allowed for the enslaving of fellow human beings. American history has been a struggle over these ideals, a struggle to make them real, as part of building constitutional democracy.
Framed in this way, we focus not simply on a founding moment, 1776 or 1787, as if a single act was enough, but on subsequent events. Elizabeth Beaumont has shown how what she calls “civic founders,” figures like Fredrick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, have played an essential role in bringing the promise of constitutional democracy to life.
History in these terms requires not just knowing the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but Douglass’s brilliant and searing “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852. While Douglass insisted on the “principles contained in that instrument” as “saving principles,” it is equally important that we read what follows: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” To those enslaved and denied citizenship because they were Black, the Fourth of July was “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Douglass, speaking nine years before the Civil War, was following black Americans forgotten by history, who drew sustenance from the Declaration’s principles. Acting as citizens, a status they were all too often denied by law, they claimed the Declaration’s promise of equality, and asked their fellow Americans to recall the language of its creed: “all men are created equal.”
This is only one example. But this is a part of American history that we should all know and understand. Our conflicted history not only tells the story of what we have in common, but how we have come to better understand and realize principles put forward over two centuries ago. Studying our country, we will find that its great champions have often been its most stringent critics, pointing out how it has failed to live up to its promise. Think of Douglass or Anthony. This history forces us to wrestle with American ideals themselves: what is equality? What is liberty? How do we understand these ideals as part of carrying America’s democratic experiment forward?
Yes, complaints about Americans not knowing their history are older than the Constitution. John Adams and Noah Webster made a habit of such complaints, worried the republic was falling apart before it had even gotten off the ground.
Today, Americans take democracy and our political institutions for granted. We tend to think, in James Russell Lowell’s famous phrase, that the Constitution is a machine that would go of itself. We forget that Lowell rejected this idea in an effort to remind us of our political duties—that America’s “experiment of democracy” needed to be carried forward by the current generation. A better and deeper sense of American history is an essential component of redeeming the American project. Those who would take up positions of leadership within American institutions, ought to have a sense of the past to better help prepare us for the future.