By David J. Bodenhamer, executive director of The Polis Center and a professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
When addressing the Harvard Law School Association in 1913, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. worried that “that fear was translated into doctrines that had no proper place in the Constitution or the common law.” His corrective was simple: “It seems to be at this time that we need education in the obvious more than the investigation of the obscure.” Although Holmes was speaking about socialism and judges he deemed “naïf and simple-minded,” his admonition seems equally appropriate for our own constitutionally contentious era. Of course, bitter disputes over the meaning of the Constitution are nothing new; they have been a hallmark of public discourse since the 39 signing delegates left Philadelphia. So other than a reminder that controversy and division are common to our history, what “education in the obvious” do we require today?
We too often forget that the Constitution is a revolutionary document. It embodied a fundamental re-scripting of assumptions about government. Chief among them was the invention of popular sovereignty, a conception of the people as both rulers and ruled, or as John Jay noted, “sovereigns without subjects” who “had none to govern but themselves.” This concept was necessary to accommodate another innovation, federalism, which James Madison acknowledged was “unprecedented … It stands by itself.” But it was the only way to resolve the inconsistency of imperium in imperio, a sovereignty within a sovereignty. Over two centuries, these solutions, radical for their time (and for ours), have been instrumental in the development of a more democratic and egalitarian nation because once marginalized and excluded groups demanded to be counted among the people who ruled themselves. And they usually succeeded first in the states, Brandeis’s famed “laboratories of democracy,” before the nation-at-large accepted their claims. But as often happens with revolutionary legacies, there is a counter-narrative to this progressive story. The inventions of popular sovereignty and federalism also have produced great mischief: they have offered a veneer of legitimacy to a variety of “isms”— racism, nativism, separatism, and the like — that acted to deny liberty rather than advance it.