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Civic Education and American Renewal

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It is not an intrinsic indictment of today's national government to say that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution would not recognize it. They were, after all, revolutionaries who threw off the mother empire on the battlefield and threw off the Articles of Confederation behind closed doors. They neither asked nor sought either unthinking or eternal submission. The question is whether their wisdom and the endurance of their handiwork merit deferential respect.

Lincoln thought they did. He explained at Cooper Union that we are not "bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did." That "would be to discard all the lights of current experience—to reject all progress—all improvement." However:

What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

Lincoln's standard for constitutional change, in other words, is not blind deference but rather thoughtful deference. On constitutional issues, the views of "our fathers" carry a presumption in their favor. That presumption can be overcome only by the application of experience with the goal of improvement.

That brings us to the nature of American constitutional government today. The changes are myriad. The party system has trumped the separation of powers. The New Deal regime has vastly expanded national power. The administrative state has eroded republicanism. Lincoln's question about these and other changes is whether they reflect deference to the Framers and draw on their wisdom. In some cases, they do. In many, we have spurned not only the Framers' example but Lincoln's, too.

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