National Constitution day passed last Sunday with little attention paid to the holiday. After attending a talk in Rehm Library the day after, I was made aware that the holiday is rather new, being passed as a line item on a larger 2004 bill. Moreover, the holiday is not merely symbolic; any institute of higher learning that receives federal funding must prove that it meaningfully recognized the holiday. Holy Cross rose to the occasion by hosting Professor Michael Uhlmann of Claremont Graduate University in Rehm Library.
His talk was wide-reaching, covering a lot of ground in little over an hour, but one of the takeaways from the discussion coalesced some of my thoughts regarding National Constitution Day itself. Specifically, what are the merits of our government making funding for higher education contingent on observing National Constitution Day? Some citizens will find this a governmental overstep. While this is not an invalid statement, the mere existence of a bill implies the lack of knowledge on behalf of the citizenry regarding our nation’s founding and Professor Uhlmann’s discussion reinforced this idea.
Not everyone must revere the founders. It is abundantly clear that many of their actions and even more of their sentiments are blatantly deplorable. However, this does not render the study of our nation’s founding obsolete. Indeed, the very opposite is true. One need not be a militant atheist, nor a devout Evangelical to find ontological questions worth exploring. In a similar way, persons who may have an initial aversion to studying deceased white males as “hero” figures still should look into the country’s founding in order to more effectively prescribe solutions.
Listening to Professor Uhlmann, who was perfectly quoting paragraphs from the Federalist Papers by memory, reminded me of how little thought I had given to the topic of our nation’s founding and guiding principles since I handed in my American government final last spring. I could pay lip service to Lockean ideals and the broad idea of federalism in a conversation, but Professor Uhlmann touched upon ideas that cannot be lazily dismissed as antiquated. Namely, that the founding of this nation essentially negates a subjectivist philosophy. In order for natural rights to exist as we take for granted today, the founders agreed that some things were “self evident.” In a society, and specifically college campus, which is becoming increasingly welcoming to postmodern, subjectivist philosophies, it is both right and necessary that younger citizens seriously think about how the Constitution affects the modern day.
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions one can address in this vein is whether a modern liberal democracy can continue to be successfully governed by a document which finds its origins alongside racism, sexism etc. While not a definitive answer, Professor Uhlmann’s challenge to think of a better guide to governing men and women than the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence speaks volumes to the importance of trying one’s best to resist the urge to throw the good out with the bad.