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Relieving Jefferson’s 19-year itch
Asked why he had invited Hugh Heclo, the political scientist whose books include A Government of Strangers (1977) and On Thinking Institutionally (2007), to be the inaugural lecturer in a new initiative to study America’s peculiar combination of constitutional government and popular democracy, Professor Marc Landy gave a simple reply: “He’s the outstanding living student of American politics and government. Also, he’s not a partisan and doesn’t have ideological baggage, and I wanted to signal that the initiative isn’t tied up in partisanship.”
Heclo’s lecture, which took place on September 27 in McGuinn Hall, certainly did the job. Not only nonideological, it was fiercely anti-ideological, taking aim especially at Thomas Jefferson, a figure Heclo characterized after the lecture as “a radical democratic ideologue who cared little for constitutional institutions, tradition, and intergenerational obligations.” In particular, the lecture took up one of Jefferson’s more eccentric populist ideas—a proposal, first made in a letter to James Madison, that all laws, including the Constitution, expire every 19 years, after which the country could start afresh with a constitutional tabula rasa.
Heclo—tall, with silver hair and piercing green eyes—set the stage for his lecture by reminding the audience, some 75 students and faculty, of the period between the American Revolution and the Constitution’s framing, six years “of dark disillusionment,” plagued by Shays’s Rebellion and a series of abuses by state legislatures: paper money schemes, retroactive legislation, uncompensated property confiscations. In the late 1780s, while Madison was helping draft the Constitution, in part as a response to the problems Heclo enumerated, Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France, and Heclo implied that Jefferson’s proposal might have been inspired by the French Revolution, with its program of radical democracy. The proposal was rooted in the idea that, as Jefferson put it, “the portion [of the earth] occupied by any individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be.” Extending the idea to society at large, Jefferson argued that after a generation dies, its wishes should no longer bind people’s conduct. This wasn’t a matter of Jefferson’s having drunk “too much wine and having a little thought experiment,” Heclo joked. “Even 35 years [after the letter to Madison], he was still writing correspondence on this theme.”
Heclo called Madison’s reply to the proposal “a fine expositive example of the constitutional outlook.” To begin with, Madison points out that governing the country under a succession of 19-year constitutions would greatly weaken the patriotic sentiments needed to sustain any constitutional order. Moreover, the likely turbulent times between constitutions would—in Heclo’s paraphrase—tempt “powerful, self-seeking groups to exploit such confusions to their own selfish purposes.”
“Madison is saying,” Heclo summed up, “that Jefferson has misunderstood the way in which human beings exist. They are not a succession of lone figures occupying a piece of physical space. They are social creatures inheriting everything fellow social creatures have made of the physical world and passed on to them.” Unlike Jefferson, who felt that each generation must explicitly assent to laws, Madison writes of “a tacit assent” contained in the failure to revoke preexisting laws. He understood, said Heclo, that “political society was a going concern,” with the citizens as “participants in a great chain letter . . . handled, amended, and passed down through time.” Absent such an understanding, Heclo said flatly, constitutional democracies cannot function.
For all their troubles in the 1780s under state governments that were overbearing, arbitrary, and corrupt, Americans would give their assent to the new Constitution, observed Heclo, but this result was far from certain. Why empower a national government that might govern the same way but with greater force? Heclo cited three reasons: “the notion that mankind’s ancient hopes for freedom had been handed down” to the generation that fought the American Revolution; Americans’ belief in “a larger meaning to their actions and the events of their time”; and their conviction that “the results of their experiment would reverberate into the distant future.”
Since the Framers’ day, concluded Heclo, the Constitution has turned into something more than a set of rules for governing. It has become a sort of national article of faith, binding Americans together down through the generations, providing “a way of defining ourselves as a people with a common narrative.”
Having finished his prepared text, Heclo said, “There you have it: the first lecture in this lecture series. But what’s really important is not the lecture itself but the initiative, and the serious study, unburdened by ideology, of constitutional democracy.”
In a phone interview before the lecture, political scientist Landy, a codirector with department colleague Dennis Hale of the Initiative for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College, expressed a similar view. “Because of what’s going on in the country, questions about the Constitution are the most important ones a political scientist can ask right now,” he said. “Resentment and anger at the other party leads both [political] parties to ignore the critical institutional commitments, and adherence to civility, required to successfully operate a constitutional democracy such as ours.”
The initiative received its start-up grant money from the Veritas Fund. “Our goal is to be aggressive in fundraising,” said Landy, in the hope that the initiative will grow into a permanent, full-fledged center. Heclo’s topic went well with the initiative’s stated mission: to study “in a variety of ways” America’s merger of “the rule of law—settled, stable, even conservative—with the most broadly popular government in history—often unsettled, populist, and rambunctious.”
David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.
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