Recently, Elie Mystal, author and “Justice Correspondent” for The Nation, went on the daytime TV show The View and stated that the U.S. Constitution is “kind of trash.” In his new book, Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to The Constitution, Mystal continues to denigrate the Constitution in chapters such as “Canceling Trash People is Not a Constitutional Crisis” and “Bigotry is Illegal Even if You’ve been Ordered by Jesus.” Msytal is not alone in his dim view of the Constitution. Repeated surveys show that college students have increasingly come to believe that the U.S. Constitution is outdated and ought to be “brought up to the contemporary era,” radically modified, or abolished altogether. In this first of a series of three articles, I aim to show, in a measured and rational manner, both the indispensability of the Constitution in its universal form and content, and the revolutionary nature of its foundation.
When the Founding Fathers turned on the light of reason over 244 years ago and wrote the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they achieved a remarkable feat. It was not just, as hundreds have remarked, the creation of an unprecedented political achievement that was the constitutional republic of the United States of America. This republic, replete with its Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional amendments, was a major civilizational advancement over any other political phenomena that had ever existed.
But the major achievement of the Founding Fathers was not political; that was a derivative achievement. They, the first and last of America’s great intellectuals, had done what no other philosopher had done in the history of mankind: they achieved a revolution in epistemology by discovering the proper application of human nature to its appropriate political configuration. For the first time, the requirements of man’s survival as a human being – that is, man’s nature as a rational and conceptual being – were grafted onto a social and political environment that supported its rational upkeep.
The political milieu that they created was a direct corollary of that nature. In other words, they were the first to understand that the endpoint of all human striving—freedom and happiness—required a specific political milieu in which human preservation and the achievement of rational happiness were possible. They were the first to integrate man’s nature with the perfect political environment. America was and remains a political application of human nature. It is a metaphysical expression in the form of a political republic derived from an unprecedented epistemological feat: the perfect integration of a discovery of man’s nature and the artificial creation of a political system that corresponds to that nature.
Until the founding of the United States of America, the history of humankind had been (and continues to be) replete with tragic experimentations or attempts to find the right political system consonant with man’s nature as a conceptual and rational being. The results fell short of the type of life suitable for a rational being, a life that transcends mere preservation and survival to include the possibility of one that embraces flourishing and thriving. Nomadic wanderers, primal tribalists who made no distinction between animal and human life, despotic theocracies, secular dictatorships, rulership by divine order, majority-ruling democracies, and rule by medieval warlords had all failed to realize that negative liberty and absolute freedom to create a conception of the good for oneself are the fundamental requirements of human nature, morally and existentially.
In the bad cases of human history, politics had always preceded and superseded morality. By default or in deliberate ignorance of the proper requirements of human nature, human beings had devised political systems that did not correspond to the objective and rational requirements of conceptual and rational beings who had to live by reason and the judgments of their minds. The men who devised such systems, from the most primitively tribal ones dominated by hordes to the most exalted of their time such as those formulated under the Roman Republic and Empire, had never sought to question the moral foundations, precepts, and principles that legitimized such systems and made them valid. They never sought to discover that what made a political system valid was the degree to which it corresponded to the requirements of the individual as an individual. A system that secured the rights that protected the conditions indispensable for human self-preservation, flourishing, and the achievement of the end of all human striving had never been properly founded.
A political system defended and devised via moral means that secured the achievement of a rational form of happiness that was not based on arbitrary whims, emotions, or desires that could short-circuit the well-being of the individual in the long-term had never existed before the conscious founding of America. America itself was conducive to a form of political happiness that secured the individual’s long-term security, well-being, and flourishing. This enterprise belonged first not to politics but to the science of ethics—a science that could discover, with a high degree of accuracy, the virtues and method of cognition suitable to the life of a human being. The translation of this discovery into an organic and material social application is what we may describe as a political system. Without the proper morality, political systems are doomed to fail. But without the proper epistemology, or proper ethical and moral system, values and virtues remain obscured from the realm of human cognition.
When Thomas Jefferson declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he achieved a revolution in moral cognition. His perception of self-evident moral axioms did not stop at the above proclamations. He extended his list to include the purpose for which “Governments are instituted among Men,” the insight that governments derived their “just powers from the consent of the governed,” and “the Right of the People to alter or abolish” an unjust government. Yes, Jefferson did view all these truths as self-evident. He did not intend them to be accepted with argument or further demonstration. This was a mighty feat of cognitive abstraction. To have derived from the Right of Nature which posits man’s self-preservation as both a biological descriptor and a normative duty to protect such a life, Jefferson and the Founders perceived the corresponding social and political existential corollaries.
We should not, as some have suggested, regard self-evident truths in a practical sense. To perceive something as self-evident is an epistemological function; it means to grasp an irreducible primary as a single unit and, with lightning and brilliant speed, to see the corresponding social requirements for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (equal counterparts) almost automatically. All the self-evident truths were moral axioms deduced from human moral nature. It is the correct grasp of human nature that led to the infallible, sociopolitical, existential corollaries in one’s cognitive feat. Any practical application of the self-evident truth is logically posterior to such truths. An application of a precept of reason presupposes the first discovery of the principle via an epistemological route.
Thus, we see that the birth of the United States was one formed in the matrices of a practical philosophic system. It was the first nation forged by consciously-held philosophical principles in whose application no breach between theory and practice was entertained. It would be too conceptually broad to state that the United States was created as the first philosophical state. That declaration would not be untrue. It would not, however, capture something fundamental about the new republic. It was the first consciously-created ideological state. Other civilizations, such as the Greek and Roman, were guided by explicit de facto principles, as have been the cases with communist, socialist, and fascist governments. America and its civilization were literally formed by the conscious discovery and application of an explicit political philosophy. America’s political philosophy—its ideology—is a constitutive feature of the civilizational identity of the republic. Without them, America would exist as a geographic entity demarcated by state lines. It would cease to be America, simpliciter. Its de jure founding principles form the core of its political and public culture.
It is the foundation which undergirds citizenship and civic identity. But the realm of philosophic abstraction and of social and political reality are expressly integrated by the revolutionary nature of government devised by the Founders. Without the latter, there would have been no way to have tied philosophical principles into concrete reality or into actions guided explicitly and consciously by ideas.
Thus, Americans became the first people in history to—consciously or unconsciously—live by holding an explicit philosophy of life. A robust political philosophy that constitutes a nation’s political ideology plays a subtle role of cultivating what we will call civic virtues that cultivate habits of thinking and, thusly, a particular kind of behavior in the public sphere. Such virtues, if only thinly informed by the political principles, still pay explicit attention to the sociopolitical characters of its citizens, what we may call the public face of Americans. That public face was legitimized to the extent that it was grounded in rational principles.
This is not to say that all Americans were rational or moral, but those who chose not to live by the dictates of reason—that is, outside the realm of an objective reality—were (and still are) regarded by the very design of the American system as cognitive and social ballasts. They would be free to avoid reality but not free to evade the consequences of avoiding reality. We may say that the Founding Fathers were fundamentally driven by a moral vocation, not a political one. That they produced a scientifically valid political document was a metaphysical concomitant of their antecedently-held moral principles. Their moral sensibilities, translated into the concrete realm of action, resulted in a political system that, in and of itself, is a moral system.
The Founding Fathers could not have established the proper political system suitable to human preservation and long-term survival without discovering and understanding its moral foundations that granted it its legitimacy. And since ethics is a derivative of metaphysics and epistemology, they would have arrived at the correct metaphysical and epistemological procedures before being able to conclusively and immutably understand the political requirements and attendant system for the indefinite upkeep of man’s moral nature. Hence, they were comprehensive revolutionaries in the major branches of philosophy—ethics, politics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, and moral psychology. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. Dr. Hill is the author of five books, including “What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression.” Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.