The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most wisdom to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous while they continue to hold public trust.

- Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, Federalist 57

Podcast of the Day

What are constitutions? How are we to interpret them? John Gardner, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University, addresses these questions in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Listen to John Gardner on Constitutions

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

After extolling for years the genius of the United States Constitution, begin to point out the impediments to democratic government that it has imposed upon the American nation itself, and the other countries on whom we have forced it.

Be clear that the Constitution is soiled with the stain of slavery — the three-fifths clause, the requirement that fugitive slaves be returned, the clause allowing the international slave trade to persist for a generation after its ratification. The hypocrisy of our Constitution’s wording, in which euphemisms must be found every time the institution of slavery is protected, reveals the founding fathers’ chagrin. Once the student of American history discovers what the euphemisms mean, he cannot help reading the Constitution as an inexact copy of George III’s regime, not a set of truths requiring centuries of fealty...

Read Alex Rosenberg's article: The Making of a Non-Patriot

Further Reading

Constitutionalism is the idea, often associated with the political theories of John Locke and the founders of the American republic, that government can and should be legally limited in its powers, and that its authority or legitimacy depends on its observing these limitations. This idea brings with it a host of vexing questions of interest not only to legal scholars, but to anyone keen to explore the legal and philosophical foundations of the state. How can a government be legally limited if law is the creation of government? Does this mean that a government can be ‘self-limiting’? Is this even possible? If not, then is there some way of avoiding this implication? If meaningful limitation is indeed to be possible, perhaps constitutional constraints must somehow be ‘entrenched’, that is, resistant to change or removal by those whose powers are constrained? Perhaps they must not only be entrenched, but enshrined in written rules. If so, how are these rules to be interpreted? In terms of their original, public meaning or the intentions of their authors, or in terms of the, possibly ever-changing, values and principles they express? How, in the end, one answers these questions depends crucially on how one conceives the nature, identity and authority of constitutions. Does a constitution establish a stable framework for the exercise of public power which is in some way fixed by factors like original public meaning or authorial intentions? Or is it a living entity which grows and develops in tandem with changing political values and principles?...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Constutionalism by Wil Waluchow

Related Topics

Power | Sociology

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.