KLUTSEY: Now, going back to the earlier part of this conversation: When I asked you about who this book is for, you mentioned the critics on the left. The question here is, Is the Constitution too old and anachronistic? It gets a lot of criticisms from those on the left who seek changes to advance justice from their perspective. I think we’re getting a lot of criticisms from the right as well. You have the emergence of the post-liberals, who seek to abandon some aspects of our tradition.
Ultimately, I wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit on that critique about whether the Constitution is too old and anachronistic. Basically, what do the authors of the 1619 Project get right about the critiques of the Constitution?
COST: Yes, that is a good question. I do think that when people complain about the age of the Constitution, they’re being selective in their complaints. There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of things that are very old that they like. A good example of this is how many critics of the Constitution are operating from within the university system. The university system is a holdover from the medieval—they have professorships. That’s a holdover from medieval guilds.
I think to say that something is bad because it’s old or outdated, in and of itself, is specious reasoning. I don’t think anybody wants to play that game because, sooner or later, there’s going to be something old that they really like. Likewise, the idea of a jury of your peers: Everybody likes a jury of your peers. Nobody’s got a problem with a jury of your peers. The phrase “a jury of your peers” traces back to Magna Carta, which is quite a bit older than the Constitution, right? So just identifying the age of the Constitution as inherently being problematic, I think, is specious reasoning.
I do think, with respect to the 1619 Project, I do think that there is a tendency among conservatives … The post-liberal right, let’s put a pin in them for a minute. I’ll get back to them in a minute. I think that there is a tendency among conservatives to turn the Constitution into a kind of American version of the Ten Commandments, issued on high from God Almighty and is fundamentally flawless and things like that.
I think it is important to acknowledge—and not just to give lip service to it, but to really acknowledge the failures of the founding generation, and in particular the failures of men of the midpoint in the Enlightenment in their definition of civil society as having been too narrow. I think that is one thing that the 1619 Project gets correct, which is that there was an exceedingly narrow definition of civil society.
Now, by the standards of the age, the United States of America had a shockingly small-d democratic civil society because land was cheap. Landowners being able to participate in politics meant a very, very broad franchise, much broader than England, which at the time was broader than anything else in Europe.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric that Jefferson lays out in the Declaration of Independence is a sweeping call for universalism. The country was fundamentally founded on universal principles of human freedom. And self-determination as well—because that’s really what the Declaration is saying, right? It’s that people, being born naturally free, have a right to self-determination. That was something they knew, and that was something they did not follow through on because it was inconvenient to their economic interests. At the end of the day, it was inconvenient to their economic interests. They just crossed their fingers and hoped that the problem would melt away.
That critique, I think, is a very fair one. I’ll give you an example of this. If you go to James Madison—there’s been complaints about the change at James Madison’s Montpelier. But if you go and see it, what they’ve really done is they’ve really brought in the story of the enslaved community on the grounds. I think that’s a very important thing for people to understand: that James Madison, who was really the architect of our system of ordered liberty, was ordering that liberty among people who were not free, and he was enjoying their labor.
We need to keep that close in mind when we’re thinking about these men and to appreciate that they made mistakes. However, just because they made mistakes, this is not the fruit of the poison tree. That’s not how these things work. They’re men. Like all human beings, they have flaws, and they were men of their age, and their age had flaws. But they still had good ideas.
I think ultimately what we need to do is, we need to evaluate their ideas. We need to take what they say at face value and then consider the wisdom of what they say. We don’t accept what they say dogmatically because they’re the Founders. Likewise, we don’t reject what they say because they came from an age where human bondage was still an acceptable thing.
Instead, the spirit in which I think that we should take them is the one that I tried to take them in the book: is that these are Enlightenment men, very well educated, with a thorough grounding in the history of Western civilization, and were faced in it with a very big problem and put together a very brilliant system of government that, in my opinion, has held the test of time.
I would argue we don’t follow the Constitution because James Madison told us to. It’s that we follow the Constitution because James Madison and the other Founders put together a series of arguments that make sense, that it’s a sensible system and it’s a defensible system. The genius of the system is not that it’s old. The genius of the system is that it’s genius. It’s just brilliant.
And it really is. If you were to think about it as somebody who’s not an American, even as a critic of the Constitution, just as a historical—even if we were to decide like, “OK, well, we’re done with the Constitution”—it’s remarkable. The United States of America was the first country in the world to figure out a sustainable way in which a broad population could govern itself without an external monarch or nobility or something like that, and they actually pulled it off. It’s remarkable.
The French tried the same thing a decade later: turned into a disaster. It really wasn’t repeated in a meaningful way until really the 20th century in many respects. You just have to hand it to them for that, if for nothing else: that clearly, they were onto something.
Properly understood, the universal application of laws is the republican guarantor of rights. So long as you and I are bound equally our rights are realized.