On Sept. 17, our nation will celebrate the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. At Brigham Young University, where I teach constitutional history, we do this by explaining how the Constitution provides the rules of republican government while protecting fundamental rights. But we also remind our students that it makes an implicit demand of its citizens. As John Adams explained, “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
To understand just what Adams meant, I tell students to be alert to the way words tend to shift meaning over the centuries (what linguists call “semantic drift”). This is particularly true of the word “moral.” Indeed, one particularly important element of the word has been lost to history: Adams would have emphasized “disinterestedness” as the critical virtue informing the morality of a successfully self-governing people.
In our contemporary usage, we equate “disinterest” with boredom. If used at all, people say it to signal they could not care less. By contrast, if the founders called a man “disinterested,” they paid him the highest compliment. It meant fair-minded and wise. Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary of 1755 defined disinterestedness as “superiority to regards of private advantage.” A disinterested citizen could not be bought nor persuaded by personal advantage; instead, he remained committed to the good of the republic and the interests of all. When Pennsylvanians wished to commemorate George Washington for his service in winning the Revolutionary War, they noted in particular his “disinterestedness and generosity of … soul.”
If disinterestedness stood as the chief virtue for the young republic, “faction” (what today we call “partisanship”) stood as its opposite. The founders understood that the spirit of faction had doomed all prior republican experiments to failure. Faction created “unsteadiness and injustice,” James Madison argued in what we now call “The Federalist Papers,” because factions coalesce precisely to subdue and exploit some number of their fellow citizens. They place exactly their “private advantage” ahead of the public good —usually by articulating their own desires as if it were the “the public good.” Rather than seek compromise or, better yet, search for an innovative and inclusive solution to a pressing public issue, most factions seek only victory.
A moral leader, as Adams understood it, refused to abide such a narrow attitude. Indeed, Adams often frustrated his fellow Federalists by refusing to favor a party system precisely because of its tendency to bring faction in its wake. Washington famously decried the party system in his farewell address. Madison, a brilliant political theorist, realized that the dangers of curing faction could prove worse than faction itself, and so he wrote much of our Constitution as an effort to at least alleviate its worst effects. But devising a system that tolerates faction is not the same as celebrating it, and none of the founders thought that a republic dominated by factionalism would prove the model of self-government they hoped this nation might become.
On a more personal level, as the historian Carl Richard notes, the founders understood that faction would force them into precisely the kind of dilemma they hoped to avoid: “Membership in a political party inevitably involved defending the indefensible vices of one’s allies,” he writes.
Today, we poke fun at the overwrought way the founders defended their reputation (which, in Alexander Hamilton’s case, led to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr). But give them credit, they would never, as it were, give over control of their reputation to just anyone who might become the figurehead of the party. More to the point, a focus on faction would deprive them of exactly what they hoped to become: historically significant.
To get one’s face carved in stone usually means rising above the petty squabbles of the day.
We historians rarely celebrate the “party man.” To get one’s face carved in stone usually means rising above the petty squabbles of the day. We have filled Washington, D.C., full of statues of figures who transcended their time; we have relatively fewer statues of partisan warriors who absolutely “destroyed” their opponents on YouTube (or its earlier equivalents).
As we celebrate the Constitution’s birthday in 2023 and, by extension, admire those figures who devised it, we might ask who among us has not only embraced the freedoms it provides but also the spirit of the founders who created it. Which of us will achieve enough disinterest to rise above faction and, ideally, transcend the limits of our time? If history is any guide, this kind of moral commitment will do best by the nation and its founding document, the Constitution.
Grant Madsen is an assistant professor in the History department at Brigham Young University. His research focuses on American political institutions both inside and outside the United States. His views are his own.