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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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Civics Education and the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty

In Academia, Civics, Conservatism, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 26, 2017 at 10:49 am

A version of this piece will appear in Faulkner Magazine. 

Our country has suffered a decline in civic literacy.  From 2006 until 2011, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) conducted annual studies that evaluated the civic literacy of students and citizens.

The results were discouraging. Most Americans were unable to pass a basic test consisting of straightforward, multiple-choice questions about American heritage, government, and law. One of the ISI studies suggested that students knew more about civics before they began college than they did after they graduated college.

It’s not just students and ordinary citizens displaying civic ignorance. Our political leaders have demonstrated that they lack the understanding of law and government befitting their high office.

Judge Arenda Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently began an opinion by stating that the Constitution declared that “‘all men’ are created equal.” This line appears in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

Senator Chuck Schumer told CNN that the three branches of government were the House, the Senate, and the President. He not only failed to mention the judicial branch, but also treated the bicameral legislature in which he serves as if it were bifurcated into separate branches of government.

Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee, while criticizing the alleged unconstitutionality of proposed legislation, claimed that the Constitution was 400 years old.

These anecdotes suffice to show the extent to which Americans no longer respect their founding principles or the framework of government established in our Constitution.

That is why the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty was founded at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. We seek to promote the principles of the common-law tradition and American constitutionalism so that the next generation of civic leaders will make informed, thoughtful decisions about the future of our country.

Ordered liberty in the United States has rested on a commitment to religious faith and pluralism, fidelity to the rule of law, and ancient liberties grounded in the conviction that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. These values characterize the American experiment. Our society is built upon them, and its continued vitality depends upon maintaining and promoting our commitment to them.

Therefore, the Blackstone & Burke Center will educate students, teachers, judges, and political leaders in the areas of religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and economic freedom. We will coordinate educational programs, research initiatives, and judicial conferences that examine the norms and nurture the institutions of ordered liberty.

We believe that the principles and ideas of the American Founding are worth conserving and celebrating. Our vision is to help renew an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.

The Blackstone & Burke Center has recruited of board of advisers consisting of internationally recognized thought-leaders such as Judge Andrew Napolitano, Senior Legal Analyst for Fox News; Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Dr. James R. Stoner, Hermann Moyse Jr. Professor and Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at Louisiana State University; Professor F. H. Buckley, George Mason University Foundation Professor at Antonin Scalia Law School; Dr. Don Devine, former Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the Reagan Administration and Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies; Dr. Ingrid Gregg, past president of the Earhart Foundation; and Dr. Daniel Mark, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Professor at Villanova University.

In our first few months of operation, we organized and hosted a reception featuring a Library of Congress traveling Magna Cart exhibit, which was displayed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court for three weeks.  Judges, business and university leaders, lawyers, students, teachers, and the general public attended the reception to commemorate and learn about Magna Carta, and Acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart of the Alabama Supreme Court and Judge William “Bill” Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals delivered remarks about Magna Carta.

The Blackstone & Burke Center received a grant from Liberty Fund, Inc., to gift the entire Liberty Fund book and media catalog to the law library, as well as a grant from the Association for the Study of Free Institutions to bring a prominent speaker to our campus next fall.

The Blackstone & Burke Center also established a formal affiliation with Atlas Network and, through Atlas Network, partnerships with such organizations as the Acton Institute, American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Cato Institute, Center for Competitive Politics, Claremont Institute, the Federalist Society, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Freedom Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, the Independent Institute, Institute for Justice, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University, Liberty Fund, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Mont Pelerin Society, National Review Institute, Pacific Legal Foundation, the Philadelphia Society, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Reason Foundation, State Policy Network, Students for Liberty, the Fund for American Studies, Young Americans for Liberty, and more.

Finally, the Blackstone & Burke Center received a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation under the auspices of the Philadelphia Society to direct a professional development conference on academic freedom at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Pennsylvania. Attendees included graduate students and university administrators from across the country who shared an abiding interest in the meaning, purpose, and characteristics of intellectual exchange in university settings.

We at the Blackstone & Burke Center look forward to a promising future as we inspire and educate new leaders in the principles and foundations of ordered liberty. To learn more about the Blackstone & Burke Center, visit our website at www.blackstone&burke.com.

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