Critical veneration and the art of constitutional aspirationalism



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In this dissertation I will argue that what I call critical veneration of the American Constitution is necessary to realizing the aspirations we, as American citizens, have set for ourselves in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. I begin from James Madison’s concept of blind veneration, which he argues in the 14th Federalist is dangerous because it blinds people to the necessity of changing governments to suit new or changed peoples. However, Madison does not support critical veneration either. Rather, he is a proponent of what I call cautious veneration: “‘The people…ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it.’” I call this cautious veneration because it involves more active and critical thought than blind veneration, but it falls short of the evaluative and normative standards that I associate with critical veneration. Madisonian cautious veneration is tethered more tightly to the existing Constitution than to aspirations set forth in the Constitution: in particular, the promise of continual moral and political improvement achieved over the historical span of the American project, so long as it should last. Critical veneration, on the other hand, must be joined with a theory of aspirational constitutionalism, which requires simultaneous reverence for the Constitution and critique of that Constitution’s inadequacies in order to push the country forward towards realizing its aspirations.