The Moral Fragility of Constitutionalism

First Things, January 1993.


In this collection of characteristically brilliant essays, Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., one of our nation’s most eminent conservative political theorists, defends the American Constitution as “the most glorious product of modern political science and still its best justification.” The achievement of our nation’s founders, according to Mansfield, was “to introduce a new era of human liberty” by thinking realistically and well about the problems of politics. Today, however, the founders” achievement is threatened “by the galloping informality or increasing democratism of our politics.” “Postmoderns” have become “disillusioned with reason, enlightenment, progress, and liberal democracy.” They have grown contemptuous of constitutional formalities that sometimes, and by design, function as obstacles standing in the way of the popular will. Even the political scientists “have become rampant democratizers because they have lost faith in reason.” Far from being part of the solution, political science has become a major part of the problem. Mansfield’s criticisms of “increasing democratism” and “rampant democratizers” should not lead anyone to suppose that he is against democracy or in favor of some authoritarian alternative. Far from it. What Mansfield says of the framers of our Constitution can truly be said of Mansfield himself: They distrusted democracy, but not because they loved aristocracy.

First Things