Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo of The Middlebury Campus
Sunday, Jan 16, 2022

Professor Talks Greatness on Constitution Day

Does the Constitution make America a great nation?

On Thursday, James W. Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, made the case in a lecture for the Constitution as the wellspring of American greatness.

Professor of Political Science Murray Dry introduced Ceaser, explaining how the origins of the Constitution Day lecture can be traced to a provision in a 2004 federal spending bill. The late Senator Robert Byrd included a requirement in that bill: any college or university receiving federal funding implement an educational program to observe Constitution Day (September 17, the day the founders signed the Constitution).

“I imagine that Senator Byrd and Congress intended this as an imprecatory law, similar to the law that tells us how to dispose of worn-out flags, meaning that it was recommended but the government was not going to be checking up on us,” Dry said.

“Nonetheless, in the spirit of the rule of law I was delighted to comply.”

Ceaser began by stating his goal.

“The crux of the topic must be to show how the Constitution causes American greatness, if it does,” Ceaser said. “I’ll eventually set the bar even higher than this, asking how the Constitution almost by itself, and not as a consequence of any of its secondary effects, directly contributes to greatness.”

“Most discussions of greatness I know focus on the individual person, not the nation,” Ceaser said, citing George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as examples.

But Ceaser said it may surprise some that the founders believed national greatness could be found by studying individuals.

Ceaser also said a good nation is not necessarily a great nation.

“Great nations by contrast, aim for something commendable.” According to Ceaser, nations such as Norway or Luxembourg do not aim for greatness and may in fact spurn the idea.

“At the end of the day, however, national greatness is a concept that must be understood at least partially, on its own terms, as a distinct phenomenon, and not merely as a copy of individual greatness,” Ceaser said.

Ceaser then listed four characteristics that capture the idea of national greatness.

Ceaser said that a great nation will have the means to impact other nations in the world.

“The power can be employed defensibly, say, to thwart the conqueror bent on crushing and enslaving others,” Ceaser said.

He argued that time and again the United States has intervened in defensive actions, including on behalf of Western Europe, South Korea and Kuwait.

Second, Ceaser said that a great nation will add to civilization through cultural or scientific achievement. On this front, said Ceaser, “where America clearly is singular and made a massive contribution is in its innovation in modes of production and use of technology.”

“A great nation might be one chosen by God to play a role in his providential plan,” Ceaser said.

As for this third mark of greatness (religious mission), Ceaser said many New England Puritans thought of America as building a city on a hill.

“It’s not beyond the bounds of faith or reason to consider that there might be a special role for this almost-chosen people in providing a safe haven for the biblical religion and in offering a modicum of protection for those threatened and persecuted around the world in its name,” said Ceaser.

Finally, he said a great nation produces a new and worthy mode of political organization as a model for others.

“America has staked its claim to greatness on a new form of government for the modern age,” said Ceaser, arguing that the transformation of governments around the world is a result of the United States Constitution.

Considering the importance of the constitution to American government and society, Ceaser said the constitution must be a “precondition” to American greatness.

“The constitution, its conception, production and adoption, make it a monument of achievement in the theory and practice of government, and for this it needs no one else,” said Ceaser.

A significant aspect of the greatness of the Constitution was the way it was conceived.

“The adoption of this new government was by choice or consent rather than force,” said Ceaser. “The requirement that the Constitution had to be ratified by the large body of the people … is the decisive fact in the establishment of modern government in the world.”

Ceaser also said an argument in Federalist No. 49 makes the Constitution into something more than a contract binding together the United States.

“The dimension of reverence was deliberately added as a way of stabilizing the Constitution into something more than paper or parchment,” said Ceaser.

“The Constitution comes in some sense to occupy the same status as the crown in England, a symbol of the nation, beyond the will of any institution or leader.”

Zak Fisher ’16 said he had not heard of the law requiring a Constitution Day event.

“I didn’t know that that was an actual law; however, given the character of the American spirit, the fact that we’re celebrating our principles, our ideals, it doesn’t surprise me,” said Fisher. “I have no doubt that if there were no law we would still be celebrating just as we are today.”

As for the content of Ceaser’s lecture, Fisher said, “Personally, I don’t find myself agreeing with everything Professor Ceaser had to say but I think he was eloquent and he gave very thoughtful and well-reasoned remarks.”