When I was a first-year student at the University of Virginia, my faculty adviser – a wise and wizened leprechaun named Marcus Mallett – put me into a class entitled HIUS 109: US History from 1789 to 1815.
Note those dates. A 15-week course devoted to 26 years of American history.
At that time, a 100-level course was a first-year graduate class. Here I was, three months out of Thomas Dale – where my social studies courses had been, shall we say, less than challenging – sitting around a table with 14 grad students and one other undergrad. The course was nominally a seminar, but our professor, Mr. William Ellis, lectured like a machine-gun on espresso.
His first two lectures were on the “historiography” of the Federal period of American history. I’ d never heard the word “historiography” before. I’d never heard of the brilliant historians who clashed so learnedly and passionately over the reasons for the American Revolution, the motives of the framers in drafting the Constitution and the struggle for its ratification.
I took five pages of notes, on legal pad, each of those first two days. I bought the required reading: 15 paperbacks, averaging 400 pages. I seriously considered dropping the course.
After all, it was my first semester of college. I had two other demanding courses, microeconomics and a philosophy course in ethics, plus French and international organizations. (The last looked to be a “gut” – archaic Wahoo for an easy A). But still, there was fraternity rush. There were new worlds to explore: Mary Washington, Mary Baldwin, Sweet Briar, Hollins, etc.
Where would I find the time for all the catching up I would need to do to survive this course, much less to read 15 books?
Ultimately, I stuck it out because, of all my courses that semester – of all the courses in my entire college career – Mr. Ellis’ was the most consistently fascinating. I read all 15 books. I took copious notes, and copied them over after class, filling in gaps from my reading or by asking questions at the next class. And I learned an incredible amount.
I wish every American could take a course like that one. If they could, there would be none of the dangerous nonsense we hear these days about the “original intention” of the founders. There would be no patience for the legal fundamentalism which insists, in the face of all evidence, that the Constitution was intended to be a stagnant contract, written in stone, unchanging across the centuries.
Instead, Americans would understand that the framers of our Constitution had very different, often fiercely conflicting, ideas about what it meant. But they all understood, as did those who fought against its ratification, that the Constitution was a scaffolding, a basic framework to be filled out over time, in light of changing circumstances, by living men.
The framers who sweated through the summer of ‘87 were lawyers – or men who dealt much with lawyers. They were inheritors of the English system of the Common Law, a jurisprudence based on the ability of judges to “find the law” in older cases, applying imprecise “precedents” to new situations by analogy.
They were well-read in the philosophy of the 17th century Whig philosophers and 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, who believed in a “natural law,” accessible by reason, which took precedence over all man-made institutions.
They were products of a world that was changing rapidly, but they did not fear that change. Rather, they sought to build a ship of state capable of withstanding the most turbulent seas, taking advantage of every wind and tide as it made its way ever forward.
Most of the framers were not, as some now insist, conventionally religious men. Washington, Franklin, Madison and Hamilton shared with the absent Jefferson and Adams a greater or lesser degree of the rationalist outlook known as Deism. But they believed firmly in a divine providence that would bless a nation dedicated to such rational principles was as the new United States.
And because our founders were wise men of great practical experience, as well as self-taught philosophers who believed in the power of human reason, the institutions they created have proved remarkably adaptable over two centuries and more of remarkable change.
Lincoln, among the greatest of their intellectual descendants, said it very well:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Forty-one years since I first sat in Mr. Ellis’ class, I can still remember a remarkable amount of what I learned there. I wish every American could be so fortunate.