Our Fellows have now completed their fourth module—a critical one at this juncture of their experience—covering the founding of America and the United States Constitution.
This is an important time when John Jay Fellows are encouraged to pay particular attention to the intersection of Christianity and the formation of the American political order. This is because it is so common today for many to assume that the United States is a secular political order when the historical record begs to differ. Module 4 examines the views of the founders and framers on religion, especially Christianity, as it was mediated to them in their British cultural context.
Our Fellows contemplate foundational values of liberty, order, justice, virtue, and religion, and how they influenced the drafting of the American Constitution.
In the following essay—the fourth in our Learning Together series—Janessa Blythe, current John Jay Fellow, offers a reflection on the necessity of understanding the past in order to address the present and impact the future.
Examining the Roots of America
By Janessa Blythe
Over two hundred years after the birth of our nation, it seems that American society has become forgetful of its roots.
In public discourse, our system of government is frequently referred to as a democracy; no reference is made to its republican structure, the Electoral College, and the Senate. Furthermore, geographic representation is increasingly attacked, and the role of Christianity in forming our nation is regularly dismissed.
Children still study the founding in school, families take pilgrimages to Washington D.C. to view our monuments to liberty and justice, and citizens continue to participate in what has been called the “American experiment.”
But will these things be enough to preserve our nation if we lack a proper comprehension of the events that gave us our system of government?
Or do we need to understand the philosophies and ideas that prepared the delegates in Philadelphia to draft our Constitution?
Through our fourth module at the John Jay Institute we have studied the foundations of our society in an effort to not only understand our history, but to equip ourselves to be able to preserve it. Russell Kirk, in the final chapter of his book, The Roots of American Order, exhorts his reader to remember that our roots are strong and deep, but they must be watered now and again. The readings in this module have encouraged me as I have seen the strength of the roots, and have inspired me to be ever vigilant about their care.
This module has allowed us to survey and discuss the influence of enlightenment thought, the impact of Christianity upon the minds of the founders and the Constitution, the presuppositions the founders held about mankind, and the structure of our government.
Our readings caused me to realize that I held some misconceptions about the American founding, particularly about the influence of Enlightenment thought. Gertrude Himmelfarb in her book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, makes a compelling argument that there was not one single Enlightenment, but three different Enlightenments—the British, the French, and the American.
Today, Americans tend to understand the Enlightenment to mean the French Enlightenment, but this is a misreading of history. The ideas that influenced America differed in key ways. For example, the French Enlightenment opposed reason and religion, which was not the case in the other two. Himmelfarb succinctly distinguishes between the three Enlightenments stating, “The British Enlightenment represents ‘the sociology of virtue,’ the French ‘the ideology of reason,’ and the American ‘the politics of liberty.’” If we fail to grasp the ideas that influenced our founders, we are in danger of misunderstanding our entire system of governance.
When we examined our founding documents, The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, and The Bill of Rights, and their histories with the help of James McClellan, we also confronted a critique of the American system, made by Robert Dahl. In the light of his criticisms of Federalism, unequal representation, our bicameral legislature, and our winner takes all elections we assessed our roots. For instance, Dahl believes that the geographic representation of states produces unequal representation that is undemocratic in nature. He would prefer a unitary system with truly equal representation.
In reading about the Constitution debates, I saw that Dahl’s concern of unequal representation was present there too. The larger states favored representation based on population and were aware that it would favor their interests. However, the smaller states could see that their voice would easily be drowned out by a system like this. Because of the competing interests at stake, both types of equal representation, population and state, were included in our system. Understanding the roots of our bicameral legislature and our structure of representation allowed me to better understand the virtues of our system.
While critiques like Dahl’s are becoming more and more popular, this module has showed me the wisdom in the American founding. Understanding deeply the imperfectability of man, the delegates in Philadelphia built a system designed to preserve liberty and to secure the God-given rights of man. Despite the bitterness of politics, I believe that the American system of government is good and that our founding principles, adhered to properly, are good for society. I am so thankful for the opportunity to examine America’s roots and equip myself with the knowledge to preserve it.