Should James Ceaser Ditch His “FED 49” License Plate?

by Christopher James Wolfe

Professor James Ceaser of the University of Virginia has recently published an article and a video conversation with Bill Kristol on the significance of the appellation, “founder.” Who exactly deserves that title, and why, are interesting questions. In teaching my American government courses, I enjoy discussing with my students the difference between “framers” and “founders”: all framers of the U.S. Constitution are founders, but not all founders were framers. Thomas Jefferson is a founder who was not a framer (he was in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention); George Washington is a framer and a founder, since he was present at Philadelphia and at almost every stage of the founding game. Ceaser defines founders as either the leaders involved in the Revolution of 1776, or the writers and defenders of the Constitution of 1787, or the political actors involved in enshrining the Constitution in the Washington Administration. I, following Mike Uhlmann’s example, would extend Ceaser’s last category to include Chief Justice John Marshall as a founder.

A key insight Ceaser offers is that none of the people in the 1787 Convention considered themselves as “founders” at the time. Ceaser argues that came later, during the ratification debates. As it turns out, the concept of “founder” was first applied to the Constitution writers by James Madison himself, in Federalist 38. Madison claimed there that a founding involving the collective wisdom of multiple founders, rather than the wit of just one individual founder, truly sets the American founding apart from the ancient foundings of Athens, Sparta, and Rome described in Plutarch. Madison’s practical recommendation in Federalist 38 is that the miracle at Philadelphia should be locked in place and unamended for as long as possible, due to the “great imprudence of unnecessarily multiplying” such experiments.

The logic of “locking in” is most connected with Federalist 49, a document that Professor James Ceaser appreciates so much that he has bought vanity license plates with FED 49 printed on them. Federalist 49 is perhaps the most “conservative” of the 85 papers; it’s where Madison explains the reasons why he thinks it is prudent to keep around a good Constitution (pace his friend, Thomas Jefferson!). The reason is this: it’s a fact that humans have a tendency to venerate what is old and has been around for a long time, whether it be an old person or an old Constitution. It makes us feel as if veneration for the Constitution is the popular thing to do, because so many people before us were doing it. That veneration and respect for the rule of law is a very good thing, as long as it is a good Constitution being venerated. The veneration we have for the “founders” has added something important to our veneration of the U.S. Constitution itself, Ceaser argues.

In the year 2019, there are some conservatives who question whether veneration of the Constitution is the right attitude to have now. Their argument is that the current Constitutional system, with its unlimited powers to regulate and its delegations to unelected bureaucrats, is qualitatively different than the system put in place by the founders. In his review of John Marini’s new book, Unmasking the Administrative State, Michael Anton claims starkly that “the United States is not now, and has not been for some time, a constitutional republic.” It is of course true that although principles we glean from the Federalist Papers are still valid because they’re rooted in human nature, many of Publius’ practical recommendations are clearly wrong for 2019, as Yuval Levin has pointed out. This finally brings me to the important question I raised in the title: should James Ceaser ditch his FED 49 license plate?

My suggestion is that Ceaser should keep it, but for his next car he should buy a plate that reads “LAST TRUMP.” This would initially cause drivers to think of our President, Donald Trump, but if they Googled it further they would discover the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s speech “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (also known as the Lyceum Address):

Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence… that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.

In his video with Kristol, Ceaser humorously claims that Lincoln’s Lyceum Address was “Federalist 49 on steroids.” That speech to the young men of Springfield, Illinois in 1838 acknowledges the power that time and veneration have bestowed on the Constitution, but I would argue Lincoln’s speech brings out something Ceaser doesn’t mention The veneration Lincoln seeks for the Constitution is veneration of a high order. It is the sort of veneration offered by people who have talent, who have ambition, who could easily apply their cold, calculating reason to plot against the Constitution and try to become founders themselves; but these people too are called to try and save the founders’ Constitution. It is plausible to think that Lincoln saw himself as one of the “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle” who was tempted to subvert the Constitution to become a founder, either “at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” But Lincoln remained loyal to the Constitution, because he believed that the Constitution was inseparably connected with the truths of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration’s philosophy of natural rights Lincoln’s trump-all reason for venerating the Constitution. Lincoln even saw the Declaration philosophy as a possible inspiration for recent immigrants to venerate the Constitution, people who had no chords of memory to the battlefields and patriot graves of the American Revolution (to borrow a phrase from Lincoln’s “First Inaugural”in 1861). As Lincoln put it in his 1858 “Speech at Chicago,” immigrants with no family connection to the “men of iron” of the American Revolution can still claim the natural rights philosophy, “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration… and so they are.”    

John Marini interprets Madison’s Federalist 49 to demand a similarly high sort of veneration. The veneration we owe the Constitution in 2019 is not some blind prejudice, or simply based on a sociological cause, or undiscerning. He writes:

[C]onstitutionalism requires an enlightened or rational defense of free and limited government (see Federalist 49). Hence, [Madison] recognized the importance of a liberal education in terms of perpetuating an understanding of the principles of nature and reason… neither Washington nor Madison could have known that the so-called enlightened or learned in the academy and university would turn against those ‘treasures of knowledge’ of which Washington had spoken.

The lesson we ought to take from Ceaser, Marini, and the other smart friends of the Constitution in 2019 is this: forget about venerating the fake Constitution taught in elite law schools, and remember to venerate the Constitution of the founders’ philosophy.