Authored by the incisive Peter Augustine Lawler (he died tragically and untimely last year) and by our friend, Richard M. Reinsch, here is a very interesting book to conclude the week, published by the consistently excellent University of Kansas Press: A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty. The thesis of the book is that the concepts and ideas manifested in the text of the Constitution cannot be understood without immersion into the social, cultural, religious, and political assumptions of the period. That is, without recourse to the several traditions that were widely shared by the founders. For those interested in the nature and political theory of constitutional government, it’s a must-read book.
When political debates devolve, as they often do these days, into a contest between big-government progressivism and natural rights individualism, Americans tend to appeal to the “self-evident” truths inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But Peter Lawler and Richard Reinsch remind us that these truths understood in the abstract are untethered from a prior, unwritten constitution presupposed by the Framers—one found in culture, customs, traditions, experiences, and beliefs. A Constitution in Full is Lawler and Reinsch’s attempt to return this critical context to US constitutionalism—to recover a political sense of individualism in relation to country, family, religious community, and nature.
Power, the authors suggest, is a public trust, not a form of obedience to either majoritarian suppression of particular liberties or the endless rights-claims lodged by autonomous individuals against society. Instead, power is ordered to the demands of a shared political enterprise that emerges from man’s social nature. Building on political insights from Alexis de Tocqueville, Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murray, and others Lawler and Reinsch seek to restore the relational person—the individual grounded in family, work, faith, and community—to a central place in our understanding of republican constitutionalism. Their work promotes the ongoing development of constitutional self-government rooted in our historical, legal, and religious foundations.
The shared middle-class values that once united almost all Americans as well as any confidence in democratic deliberation or political liberty are rapidly atrophying. This book aims to rebuild this confidence by helping us think seriously about the complex interplay between political and economic liberties and the relational life of creatures and citizens.