Monday, January 29, 2007

The Constitution was the Creed, We Never Got the Catechism

According to John Adams, the American Constitution needed a catechism to explain how we should live it out:

The idea that a moral social and political culture was necessary to maintain the Constitution is an idea that Adams held before the French Revolution began. Adams thought that the Congress needed write a political and moral catechism that would be taught in American schools. Adams asked Abbé Mably to write this catechism. Mably declined the offer, arguing that it would be better for Adams and the people in the US Congress to write and publish such a catechism (The information on the Catechism is in “John Adams on the Abbé de Mably.” More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library. Volume VIII April 1933. 125-145). This catechism was to explain the principal parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with a view to explaining the kind of personal and social life that was necessary for each person to live and maintain in order to live the political truths contained in our founding creeds.

Despite this early rejection by Mably, and despite such a catechism never being written, Adams never lost his concern for the political culture that he thought was necessary to support the American creed. And so, in his letters to Jefferson, Adams expressed concerns about the negative effects that Rousseau’s philosophy might have on the interpretation of the American Constitution. If we were to extrapolate from his comments to Mably, political philosophy is the catechism of the Constitution. If Rousseau’s philosophy were to become the catechism of the Constitution, it would distort and ruin the Constitution over time because it would not adequately explain the Constitution and the institutions that it established.

Adams saw Rousseau’s political philosophy as informing the movements of the French Revolution. He feared the growing influence that the writings of Rousseau were having on young American intellectuals. He thought that if the intellectuals interpreted the Constitution through the lens of a Rousseauean philosophy, it would be the end of the Constitution and the institutions that it established. There are certain cultural ideas that need to be maintained in order to uphold the constitution and the institutions it established. Rousseau’s philosophy tended toward the breakdown of these ideals.

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Blogger Tortoise(notHare) said...

I don't know enough about Rousseau to comment in depth. My sense is that Rousseau himself lived such a difficult, challenging, precarious, and undisciplined life and that I have a stronger impression of what he was against and wished to tear down rather than his systems and specific ideas for what to do..."liberty" can soon become "anarchy". [I have the same impression of "the other Adams" Samuel Adams, who seemed far better at starting a riot against things before the Revolution than in governing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after the American Revolution...these people would have become like Karl Rove and James Carville if they had lived in our times.]

I also commend John Adams' excellent lawyerly instincts. Modern law is often set up like Russian Easter Eggs, with a small core of a Constitution, a larger egg of statutes, and the largest egg of all: the rules, regulations and other administrative law of the agencies which are charged with administering statutes. John Adams was recognizing the importance and great benefit of having a core of beliefs (Creed, Constitution, corporate Mission Statement) but then the need for the hows and whys of that core to be spelled out (Catechism, Statutes/Regs, company policies).
Because we do not have such a Catechism it often seems that modern politicians invoke the Founding Fathers (and Lincoln) to use their words as a kind of scripture from which a Catechism is inferred (or invoked by the current politician). In addition to the Abbe declining, I wonder if this idea never got off the ground because of the "elephant in the living room" of slavery (makes it kinda hard to wax poetic about "liberty" when the labor for virtually the entire economy south of the Mason-Dixon line came from slaves).

3:15 PM  

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