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A Better Sort of Constitutional Learning: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, History, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Scholarship on July 25, 2018 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions not long ago characterized the office of sheriff as a “critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” This plain statement of an incontrovertible fact should not have been controversial. Yet with clockwork predictability, social media activists began excoriating Sessions for his ethnocentrism.

Even those who should have known better—Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.), the NAACP, college-educated personalities in the Twittersphere—piled on the criticism, accusing Sessions of racism and suggesting the term “Anglo-American” was a dog whistle for white nationalists and the alt-Right. It was another sign of how uninformed many in our society have become, and of how name-calling and crude labeling have replaced constructive dialogue and civil conversation in the political sphere.

Fortunately, there’s a good, levelheaded primer for understanding the basic framework of American government that teachers and other leaders should recommend and assign to our ignorant masses: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, which the Liberty Fund published in 2000.

McClellan, who passed away in 2005, was a proud Virginian who taught at several universities, including the University of Virginia, and was, among other things, the James Bryce Visiting Fellow in American Studies at the Institute of United States Studies (University of London) and president of the Center for Judicial Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. He was also for a time a senior resident scholar at Liberty Fund.

Liberty, Order, and Justice is McClellan’s best known work. It maps the history and philosophy that shaped the U.S. Constitution and its amendments and is separated into seven parts, each appended with primary sources that are reproduced in full or in part: Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the Northwest Ordinance, and many others.

As a straightforward overview of the seminal concepts that characterize American government—separation of powers, republicanism, federalism, checks and balances, rule of law—this volume could serve, and probably has served, as the principal textbook for a high school or college course. The “Suggested Reading” lists at the end of each of its sections provide more than enough supplemental material to round out a semester of comprehensive study.

A work of such breadth and scope is impossible to summarize. McClellan begins with British history, in particular the emergence of Parliament, the evolution of the common law, and the development of legal doctrines and principles that responded to changing circumstances. He discusses the differences between the French and American Revolutions, and their respective effects upon the imaginations of Americans who were alive at the time. He devotes an entire section to the Philadelphia Convention, which he says, perhaps overstating, was “often more like a gathering of polite friends than an assemblage of angry political zealots.”

McClellan’s chief concern is federalism, a principle that appears throughout. He highlights disagreements between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, warning that “we should not presume that the Anti-Federalists were wrong.” He adds: “The inquiring student, having examined the debates thoroughly and objectively, may well conclude that the Anti-Federalists were right about certain matters.”

Lest his readers get lost in the historical and conceptual details, McClellan prefaces each section with the heading “Points to Remember,” followed by numbered outlines of central facts and themes. This feature enables easy memorization and study—another reason the book is suited for the classroom. 

For the most part, McClellan recounts historical events dispassionately, and lays out influential concepts with no personal pique or ideological bent. Only occasionally is he tendentious, and then only subtly so. For instance, his judicial hermeneutics seek out authorial intent, thereby rejecting textualism and signing on to a now passé version of originalism. “The basic interpretive task,” he submits, “is to determine the intent of the Constitution, laws, and treatises, and to construe all instruments according to the sense of the terms and the intentions of the parties.”

This statement might have made Justice Antonin Scalia unhappy.

He’s also skeptical of natural law, stating:

It may well be that we are all governed by a higher, unwritten natural law, emanating from God; that certain rights are by nature indelibly impressed upon the hearts and minds of all mankind; and that the spirit of ’76 is incorporated into our fundamental law. The problem is that these concepts, whatever their merit and value, are not provided for in the Constitution, and there is no evidence that the Framers ever intended them to be.

This statement would have made Justice Scalia happy.

McClellan calls Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England a “great compendium of learning,” a term of endearment that applies equally to Liberty, Order, and Justice. The two have a similar aim: to synthesize disparate principles into a coherent treatise and to explain the origins and foundations of the current legal and political order. In a different age, when information wasn’t immediately available and students couldn’t google their way to quick answers, this book might well have become as important as the Commentaries.

Its cheerful conclusion, at any rate, seems naïve in our present moment: “What we have offered you in this book is the basic structure of America’s constitutional order. It is up to you to preserve and improve that structure; and you have a lifetime in which to work at it.” Were he alive today, McClellan might not be so optimistic.

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Our Real Constitution—And What Happened to It

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on January 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

Conservatism lost a giant when George W. Carey passed away in 2013. Thanks to Bruce Frohnen, his longtime friend, we’re able to hear anew Carey’s prudent admonitions in these strange and interesting times.

Before his death, Carey completed drafts of chapters on progressivism and progressive constitutional reform that later became substantial portions of two chapters in Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law, the book that Frohnen has now completed. The final product is an impressively collaborative effort that substantiates the idea of constitutional morality, which Carey spent years developing.

The two men had planned to split the chapters in half. Having few disagreements between them, they reserved the right to approve and edit each other’s contributions. Carey’s untimely passing changed these plans. To honor his friend, Frohnen consulted Carey’s work carefully, downplaying his own more “antifederalist” positions to accommodate Carey’s more federalist leanings. If Jefferson and Hamilton would have agreed that the size and scope of the American government has become dangerous and unmanageable, then it’s no surprise that Frohnen and Carey found common ground.

Constitutional morality denotes “the felt duty of government officials … to abide by the restrictions and imperatives imposed on them by a constitution.” It contemplates the “unwritten constitution,” a concept central to Frohnen and Carey’s argument that’s drawn from Russell Kirk and Orestes Brownson, both of whom Frohnen in particular has interpreted thoughtfully and skilfully. Kirk defined the unwritten constitution as “the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.” To maintain their authority and gain general acceptance in a community, written constitutions and positive laws must reflect the norms and values of the people they bind. Frohnen and Carey’s narrative is about how quasi-law in the form of executive decree and the administrative state have become divorced from the people they govern.

The narrative runs something like this. Rule by executive command and administrative agencies has resulted in a decline of the rule of law in the United States. Odd, extratextual interpretations of the United States Constitution have dislocated its content from the common understandings of reasonably prudent Americans. The Progressive Era facilitated a shift in our approach to law that was qualitatively different from the teachings of checks-and-balances, decentralization, separation-of-powers, and other such doctrines alive in the minds of our Founders, even those like Hamilton and the young Madison (as against the later Madison) who favored a strong national government. Consequently, we have found ourselves in a crisis of constitutional morality, there being little institutional and systemic accountability to curb the broad powers of bureaucracy, reckless and unelected federal judges, a delegating congress beholden to lobbyists and corporations, and the expansion of executive privilege, prerogative, and patronage.

Political rhetoric of limited government, common among Republican leaders, does not square with the manifest reality of the ever-growing managerial state. Heated discourse alone won’t suffice to roll back federal programs and agencies. “What is required,” say Frohnen and Carey, “is a retrenchment of the federal government into a much smaller but more detailed and legalistic form that allows more actions to be taken by other institutions, be they states, localities, or associations within civil society.” In short, these men call for devolution and subsidiarity. They make the case for localized control based on clear rules that are consistent with common norms and expressed in a shared idiom.

Championing the rule of law involves the recognition that, although morality does or should underpin laws, “we cannot use the tool of law to achieve perfect virtue, or freedom, or any other moral good.” Without denying the importance or reality of natural law, which is antecedent to human promulgation, Frohnen and Carey approach it cautiously, stating that it “is not a rigid code demanding that human law force all human beings into a straightjacket of specific individual conduct.” Seemingly skeptical of grand schemes for the magnificent systematization and organization of natural-law principles, they humbly submit that humans “can only do our best to develop practical lawmaking and interpreting virtues such that the laws we make will be efficacious in spelling out and enforcing duties in such a way as perhaps to encourage people to pursue virtue.” This nomocratic mode of thinking recalls Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Kirk, and Hayek with its awareness of the limitations of human knowledge and its attention to the historical, institutional, and cultural embeddedness of standards and values.

If there is one take-home point from this book, it’s that government is not the instrument through which to facilitate the good, the true, or the beautiful. We should avoid the “new dispensation” that consists in “a government ruled not by formal structures and procedures but by the pursuit of putatively good policy through broad statements of programmatic goals and the exercise of broad discretionary power.” Disempowering the central government may be the obvious counter to this new dispensation, but we’ve been advocating that for decades. In fact, Frohnen and Carey believe that “there can be no simple return to the original dispensation,” which involved “the Framers’ constitutional morality, emphasizing procedure, caution, and restrained defense of one’s institutional prerogatives.”

With no quick and easy remedy at the ready, Frohnen and Carey encourage something less magnificent and extraordinary: civic participation in local associations and mediating institutions such as “families, unions, clubs, schools, and religious groups,” the kinds of little platoons that struck Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America, as bulwarks against tyranny. “More important than any particular policy,” Frohnen and Carey aver, “is the attitude toward law and policy making that must be recaptured.” Although they suggest that some form of separation or secession may become inevitable, the corrective they envision is rhetorical and discursive. We must, in their view, shape the political discourse through private associations, which, in the aggregate, engender the bottom-up processes of rulemaking that reflect the normative orders of local communities rather than the top-down commands of a faraway, massive, impersonal sovereign.

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