By Prochaska, Frank
History Today , Vol. 60, No. 2
American citizens treat their constitution like scripture. If the rhetoric of political campaigns and school textooks are any guide, most US citizens believe, in words attributed to President Coolidge (1923-29), that 'to live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race'. Since its ratification by the original 13 states - Rhode Island being the last in 1790--the world's oldest written constitution has had few critics at home and many admirers abroad. Blessed by the Founding Fathers, it continues to be seen as a wellspring of good government, a beacon of freedom and the foundation stone of American exceptionalism. As President Obama observed soon after his election, 'the values and ideas in those documents are not simply words written into ageing parchment; they are the bedrock of our liberty and our security'.
In the decades after the Founding Fathers, discussion of the constitution entered a period of complacency. America expanded, trade prospered and the Union, despite the divisions, held together. There was much muttering of the words of the ageing parchment, but the constitution's failings became increasingly apparent after Andrew Jackson's time, as the quality of American presidents deteriorated and tensions mounted between the northern and southern states. Yet there were no American successors to Alexander Hamilton or James Madison- no updated Federalist papers--to provide learned commentaries on the impending constitutional crisis brought about by the irreconcilable differences between the free and slaveholding states.
Enter the English man of letters Walter Bagehot (1826-77), an avid student of government and the greatest constitutional writer of his time. Calls for suffrage reform in Britain in the 1860s increased Bagehot's fear of egalitarian democracy and prompted him to turn his mind to American government. 'The greatest and best of presidential countries' provided a parallel to Britain and a contrast between what he called the 'presidential system' and the 'cabinet system'. A comparison between the two countries' constitutions became a compelling theme in his political writings, not least in his masterpiece, The English Constitution (1867).
At the time, American critics thought his observations 'weighty' and 'well considered', if not always just. In our day, when rival priesthoods translate the constitution with literal exactitude or loose construction, Bagehot's 'wise chat', as one reviewer called it, is worth revisiting. It is all the more relevant in an era undergoing another crisis in political affairs, when many Americans view their constitution by the light kindled at their own particular altars.
Bagehot believed the dead weight of a written document made sacred for want of a hereditary sovereign was an impediment to resilient, effective governance. No Englishman, he wrote, would be impressed with arguments that assumed that 'the limited clauses of an old state-paper can provide for all coming cases, and for ever regulate the future'. His trenchant remarks on the American Constitution were born of wide-ranging reflections on political structure and the practical effects of government.
Bagehot never visited the United States though he admired its energy, pluck and respect for the law, which he took to be characteristically Anglo-Saxon. As a banker and financial journalist he had an interest in fiscal policy and the cotton trade. As a man who hated slavery, he had little sympathy for traditions of southern chivalry. But it was the effects of the Civil War on American politics that turned his mind to essential constitutional issues. 'It is impossible,' he wrote in 1861, 'not to observe that the whole mischief has been, not caused but painfully exacerbated by the unfortunate mixture of flexibility and inflexibility in the United States Constitution. …