The Spirit of ’87

"The Spirit of '87," The Public Interest, Winter 1987.


THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION is a highly paradoxical document. Rhetorically, it is dry, legalistic, lacking in eloquence. Substantively, too, while it may not in fact have been “the work of men who believed in original sin,” as James Bryce thought, it certainly reveals what one would call a “realistic” view of human nature—i.e., a view that is more alert to the absence of human virtues than to their presence, a view that is skeptical of the ability of human beings to govern themselves without the prior imposition of severe institutional self-restraints. There is no visible “democratic faith” in this Constitution. And yet—and yet it is a founding document that is venerated by a people for whom such a “democratic faith” is about as unquestionable a popular dogma as can be imagined in our secular age.

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