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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: July 2009

5 - The Classical Constitution


Gordon wood has called the american constitution of 1787 an “intrinsically … aristocratic document, designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period” and the “end to classical politics.” In the final pages of this book, I might legitimately question whether the Constitution is, indeed, a classical work. Even more relevantly, it should be considered whether the Constitution marks a defining transition between classical modes of governance and the modern, democratic, and representational styles of government that were predicted by Jefferson and Madison. When viewed in this way, it matters less to see the Framing generation through a prism of class and economic distinctions, than it is to view the Framers' intellectual ethos through the lens of the ideas they held in common. Among these attitudes were certainly their collective experience in resisting, and then defeating, British imperial designs. Also of importance was their tolerant, but devout, religiosity, as well as their commitment to the rule of law (and particularly the ideal of the common law and English civil liberties). Lastly, and as I have emphasized here, was the Framing generation's inculcation in, and devotion to, the classical ideals of civic responsibility, public honor, and republican government.

As I have acknowledged at the outset, it would be easy to dismiss the influence of the classical tradition on the Framing generation as some peculiar and pretentious residuum of the elite culture of the times.

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