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Guenther Chair Examines Roots of Americans’ Mistrust of Government


Paul Guenther (FCRH ‘62), and wife, Diane, are strong believers in the unique value of the Jesuit educational tradition. “This is really a great pleasure and … Saul was obviously the right person for this chair,” Paul Guenther said at the installation ceremony.
Photo by Chris Taggart

The installation of Fordham’s Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History on Oct. 5 was something of a “New York” story.

Saul Cornell, Ph.D., the chair’s inaugural holder, was born and raised in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn. Paul (FCRH ’62) and Diane Guenther, who established the chair, were born, raised—and met—in Inwood, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood. And Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham and a native New Yorker, installed Cornell to the post by welcoming him home.

“He is a most distinguished scholar, but we’re especially delighted because he is a son of the city,” Father McShane said.

So it was perhaps fitting that Cornell’s inaugural lecture, “The Perils of Popular Constitutionalism: Riding the D Train with James Madison,” was about Anti-Federalists, whom he compared to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“They were the loveable losers who lost the big game but had great heart,” said Cornell, adding that he chose the topic because recent political and court decisions make it seem like the United States Constitution was written by the Anti-Federalist losers, not the victorious Federalists, such as James Madison, the primary architect of the American constitutional system.

“If you get away from the founders—the biographies of the great men like Madison and Hamilton—there’s more scholarship on the losers than the winners. It’s not just scholars; we as Americans have a great affinity for the losers even though we live under a document written by the winners,” he said.

Cornell said he often asks students how many of them would rather be treated by an 18th-century dentist instead of a modern one.

“Such a question usually provokes looks of horror,” he said. “I then ask them how many of them would scrap our current Constitution to have it redone by today’s Congress. Curiously, you get almost the same look!

“I am not someone who puts these men on a pedestal. Still, there is indisputably something remarkable about their political wisdom and constitutional foresight. The fact that we live under a frame of government that was largely a creation of the Enlightenment and its particular vision of politics and human nature is remarkable.”

So, who were these Anti-Federalists? Patrick Henry and Elbridge Gerry aren’t household names, so Americans couldn’t be living in an Anti-Federalist moment, could they?

Cornell gave the audience an informal pop quiz to test their “Federalist propensities.” Attendees were asked to raise their hands if they believed, for example, that “the Office of the President of the United States has too much power; the rich and the powerful dominate the Senate; and the Supreme Court is more likely to undermine your liberty than protect it.”

The audience was found to be about 50 percent Anti-Federalist. This came as no surprise to Cornell.

“I’ve never polled a group of Americans that has been less than 50 percent Anti-Federalist in their sympathies,” he said.

Cornell took an Aristotelian approach to explain.

“Aristotle noted that each of the three ideal models of politics (one, few and many) was prone to degenerate into a corrupt form,” he said. “It was the genius of the 18th-century English to have created a mixed constitution blending the best of these three pure forms.

“The audacity of 18th-century Americans was that they rejected this prevailing wisdom and created a new constitutional model that sought the same balance, but did so without monarchy or aristocracy, substituting a system of checks and balances, Federalism and a written constitution. Anti-Federalists were reluctant to accept such a novel set of solutions.”

The Aristotelian model could help in trying to understand the problem with modern Anti-Federalism, which Cornell said is embraced by the Tea Party and gun-rights advocates.

“The question is: Can we take the best of what Anti-Federalism offers without embracing some of the nuttiness that comes when Anti-Federalism is taken to an absurd extent?”

As Cornell’s informal poll indicated, everyone is a little bit Anti-Federalist.

“But you, a sober crowd at Fordham can’t just be part of [what historian Richard Hofstadter referred to as]an anti-intellectual tradition, otherwise there wouldn’t be something there that resonated with so many of us,” he said.

The corrosive anti-government ideology that is heard about so much about these days in the media is Anti-Federalism gone awry, Cornell said. The anti-elitist attitude—the belief that government can’t be trusted to do anything and that all politics involves corruption—must be wrestled with if America wants to move forward, he added.

“The solution to this anti-government ideology is not to just fulminate; it’s civic engagement. Get involved or don’t get angry, that’s the founders’ message,” he said.


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