The Creation of a Constitutional Culture
29 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2005
This essay, part of a symposium honoring the work of the legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman, examines a basic issue that has never received much treatment in the history and understanding of American constitutional government: in the years following the ratification of the federal Constitution and the state constitutions, how was a constitutional culture created?
Constitutional culture includes such things as the disposition of regular citizens to recognize and accept that they are governed by a written document, one that creates institutions of government and sets limits on what the government may do; the accepted belief that the governing charter is created by the citizenry; the knowledge that the charter is not timeless, but rather that the citizens may change it or revoke it under certain circumstances; and the understanding that until the charter is changed we are bound by it and required to go along with its ultimate results even though we are free to disagree with them. Constitutional culture also includes the understanding that a constitution unifies a population beyond those in one's immediate sphere of acquaintance such that other people in other places are likewise governed by this written document and that, whatever our other differences, this is something we have in common.
Constitutional historians and theorists have never provided a very satisfying account of how it was that after the drafting and ratification of the federal and state constitutions, the population at large came to understand what these constitutions meant, accepted them as law, and went along with the arrangements that had been put in place and the consequences that followed.
The failure to appreciate the creation of a constitutional culture is a serious oversight. The ratifying generation, the very Americans who put in place these written charters, understood that it was not enough simply to write and adopt a constitution: if a constitution was going to last and thrive, it was crucial to have in place a constitutional culture - otherwise, the principles and institutions of constitutional government would be little more than words on paper.
The particular piece of the story this essay presents is how civic associations emerged in the early decades of the Republic as an important, perhaps the most important, mechanism for creating the American constitutional culture. During these early decades, civic associations were a powerful means for instilling in ordinary people the values and habits of constitutional government. Civic associations were also a nationalizing, unifying force, bringing together Americans from disparate states into a shared, common constitutional experience. Perhaps more than anywhere else, it was in civic associations that ordinary Americans, the people who were neither delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia nor the draftsmen of state constitutions, learned the principles of constitutional government, developed and nurtured republican values, and came to understand themselves as American citizens who shared interests and a destiny with the inhabitants of distant towns and other states. In this sense, civic associations helped to make work the constitutions that were ratified in the early years of American independence. Civic associations created and embodied the constitutional culture that contributed in significant and lasting ways to the success of constitutional government.
The essay explores these developments by focusing on a representative case study: the town of Utica, New York. The essay also considers some implications for modern theories of constitutional government.
Keywords: constitutional culture, constitutional history, civic associations, ordinary Americans, nationalism, republican government
JEL Classification: K1, K10, K11
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation