The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday is the Constitution of the United States. September 17, 2023, is the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Grant Madsen, an assistant professor in the History department at Brigham Young University, wrote about the Constitution in a recent opinion piece in The Deseret News.
Madsen explained that he teaches his students that “the Constitution provides the rules of republican government while protecting fundamental rights. But we also remind our students that it makes an implicit demand of its citizens. As John Adams explained, ‘Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’”
According to Madsen, one of the problems in understanding the statement of Adams is that “words tend to shift meaning over the centuries (what linguists call ‘semantic drift’).” The word moral is one of the words for which the meaning has shifted. Madsen explained that “one particularly important element of the word has been lost to history: Adams would have emphasized ‘disinterestedness’ as the critical virtue informing the morality of a successfully self-governing people.” Madsen continued with his explanation:
In our contemporary usage, we equate “disinterest” with boredom. If used at all, people say it to signal they could not care less. By contrast, if the founders called a man “disinterested,” they paid him the highest compliment. It meant fair-minded and wise.
Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary of 1755 defined disinterestedness as “superiority to regards of private advantage.” A disinterested citizen could not be bought nor persuaded by personal advantage; instead, he remained committed to the good of the republic and the interests of all. When Pennsylvanians wished to commemorate George Washington for his service in winning the Revolutionary War, they noted in particular his “disinterestedness and generosity of … soul.”
If disinterestedness stood as the chief virtue for the young republic, “faction” (what today we call “partisanship”) stood as its opposite. The founders understood that the spirit of faction had doomed all prior republican experiments to failure. Faction created “unsteadiness and injustice,” James Madison argued in what we now call “The Federalist Papers,” because factions coalesce precisely to subdue and exploit some number of their fellow citizens. They place exactly their “private advantage” ahead of the public good – usually by articulating their own desires as if it were the “the public good.” Rather than seek compromise or, better yet, search for an innovative and inclusive solution to a pressing public issue, most factions seek only victory.
A moral leader, as Adams understood it, refused to abide such a narrow attitude. Indeed, Adams often frustrated his fellow Federalists by refusing to favor a party system precisely because of its tendency to bring faction in its wake. Washington famously decried the party system in his farewell address. Madison, a brilliant political theorist, realized that the dangers of curing faction could prove worse than faction itself, and so he wrote much of our Constitution as an effort to at least alleviate its worst effects. But devising a system that tolerates faction is not the same as celebrating it, and none of the founders thought that a republic dominated by factionalism would prove the model of self-government they hoped this nation might become….
As we celebrate the Constitution’s birthday in 2023 and, by extension, admire those figures who devised it, we might ask who among us has not only embraced the freedoms it provides but also the spirit of the founders who created it. Which of us will achieve enough disinterest to rise above faction and, ideally, transcend the limits of our time? If history is any guide, this kind of moral commitment will do best by the nation and its founding document, the Constitution.
I learned much from Madsen’s article, particularly the meaning of the word moral. I can clearly see that factions are destructive to a constitutional way of life. America is deeply divided by two factions of our day – known as Democrat Party and Republican Party. Too many members of both parties make decisions on what is good for the party, not what is good for America.
I suspect that many Americans vote for a party rather than for what is good for America. Our nation will be better off when policy makers and individual citizens become more “disinterested” and make decisions that will create a greater and more united America.