The American Experiment Can Fail
This week I gave my first lecture for the semester in the course in Constitutional Interpretation at Princeton. I say “the” course, rather than “my” course, because it is not “mine” in the sense that other courses I teach are “my courses.” Rather, Constitutional Interpretation is a course I hold in a sacred trust from my predecessors as McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Walter F. Murphy, Alpheus T Mason, Edward S. Corwin, and Woodrow Wilson. Many of my substantive views differ from theirs, just as their views differed from each other’s, but I strive to maintain the intellectual seriousness and rigor they brought to the classroom.
I decided to begin the course this year not with remarks on the American Founders, but rather with some thoughts about Lincoln and his engagement with their concerns and principles. In particular, I noted that Lincoln agreed with the founders that the American experiment in republican government and morally ordered liberty was just that: an experiment. And experiments can fail. Republican government could collapse in America just as it had in other places in the past. The founders saw their tasks as makers of the Constitution to be setting forth principles and constructing institutions and institutional arrangements that would avoid or counteract the evils that had caused previous republics to fail and regimes to devolve into despotism.
Robert George is Chairman at United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, McCormick Professor of Juriprudence at Princeton University, Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.
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