by Stephen Zierak
As many Americans seeking to further their education regarding the founding documents of the United States have come to learn, Hillsdale College is currently offering an incredible service free of charge.
Hillsdale is offering a free ten-lecture series on the Constitution that they have termed “Constitution 101”. Based on a course that is a graduation requirement for all Hillsdale students, this course is offered to the public through a series of online webcasts. For more information, or to register/donate to the project, you can go here. If that doesn’t work for you, we have Stephen Zierak, a GRIH correspondent sitting in on the lectures and providing us with his report of what takes place in this course. His report is reproduced below:
Lecture One: The American Mind (Dr. Larry Arnn)
Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College since May, 2000, offers all of us the privilege of participating in a ten session study of the American Constitution. Taught by a half dozen of Hillsdale faculty, this internet program offers weekly lecture and reading material, combined with the ability to join the conversation via e-mail. There is no tuition fee, although contributions are solicited. The first session was posted on February 20, and those interested may register at constitution.hillsdale.edu. This course is similar to a core course required at Hillsdale for graduation.
Hillsdale College is a liberal arts college, where students learn what it is to be a human, and what is a human’s place in the world. Core values include civil and religious freedom, intelligent piety, and sound learning. Dr. Arnn stresses that a college is a partnership in learning, and welcomes his broader audience to that partnership. The purpose of this course is to enter into an argument regarding our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. There is a choice coming to America between the Constitution and other ideas of governance. We need to understand both our Constitutional order and the alternatives being presented to us. This course describes both the beautiful meanings of our founding documents and the principles of those who would supplant them.
There are relationships among the concepts “constitution”, “statute”, and “statue.” A constitution ordains and establishes, and it sets something firmly in place. A statute is a firm law that governs people. A statue is a firmly established work of art. As with Aristotle’s harpist, one moves to a higher good as skills are developed. Likewise, our Constitution may be viewed as a work of art as it integrated the wisdom of the important writers of the Western tradition with the knowledge of the good in American society.
When the Continental Congress decided upon separation from England, they produced the Declaration of Independence. And when the post-revolutionary national government did not work well, representatives from the states were dispatched to write what would become our Constitution. These were intentional acts that operated not in the minds of philosophers, but in the realties of a governmental system. In the Declaration, the rights of individuals were sourced in “nature and nature’s God”, so that sovereignty was located outside the government for the first time in human history. The Constitution was designed to secure these rights, with checks and balances to prevent tyranny, whether of one man or of a majority. Though based on ideas from other times and places, these documents breathed the American experience. Something had been created that could only be considered a great work of political art.
What were the causes of the United States of America?
First, we must consider the land and the people. We inhabited a vast, new land, peopled by those who arrived from a far away civilization. People needed to organize themselves in self-reliant ways in order to survive. We were a reading people, who knew the works of political philosophers from both contemporary and ancient times. We were at the edge of law and civilization, but we carried civilization to American shores. Our leaders were people of high quality, who understood the timelessness of the ideas they advocated. There is no modern understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” these things are the same for us as for those who came before us and will come after us. They derive from the human condition, what we are and forever will be. When we consider alternatives to our Constitutional order, we should also consider the quality of those advocating them. Are they Jeffersons, Madisons, Adamses, or Washingtons? Dr. Arnn used the metaphor of the white marble material in Michelangelo’s David. The material underlying our Constitutional order is of very high quality. Can we say the same for the critics?
Second, our country’s form was set by the Constitution. How we proceed is profoundly influenced by it. American exceptionalism depends upon it. We are distinguished from other countries in that we place sovereignty with the people, whose representatives exercise limited governmental authority to secure our rights. To the extent we depart from Constitutional governance, we undermine the solid base that is the essence of Americanism.
Third, our founders were moved to write a Declaration of Independence, a statement that moved the American people to establish a country. The purpose of the Declaration was not merely to serve notice of separation from England. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, an elder Thomas Jefferson described its purpose: “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take….Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind….”
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are necessarily linked. The Declaration states the principles of human freedom, and the Constitution establishes the governance to secure those principles. Abraham Lincoln commented on that interrelationship with the following Biblical metaphor: “The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.”
The founders understood Aristotle’s idea of a hierarchy of goods, leading ultimately to a thing that is good in itself rather than simply good in creating a higher good. Human happiness was that thing that is good in itself, and was understood by Aristotle as arising from the living of a virtuous life. The ownership of one’s own life and the pursuit of that ultimate good of happiness are proclaimed by the Declaration and secured by the Constitution.
There is beauty in the wisdom of the ages as applied by the American mind. Dr. Arnn is correct. Our founding documents truly are great works of art.
The second session of this course will be available on line February 27. The Declaration of Independence is the topic, and the lecture is presented by Thomas West.