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 establlished 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 courts 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, and that is fundamentally the paradox of American political and constitutional life,” 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. They were not demigods; they made many mistakes, and the system they created needed a fair number of amendments and a civil war to get it to work properly, but nonetheless there is indisputably something remarkable about their political wisdom and constitutional foresight. The fact that we still 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; the Supreme Court is more likely to undermine your liberty than protect it; the Bill of Rights is an important safeguard to your liberty; and my state government is more trustworthy than the federal government.”
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 the phenomenon.
“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.
“There are insights from Anti-Federalism and then degenerate insights,” he said. “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, we’re all 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.
“The fault is in ourselves,” Cornell said. “We are a fundamentally Anti-Federalist culture and we must find some way to let the better Federalist nature of our side speak to the Anti-Federalist nature if we are to prosper.”