Stanford Professor on Constitution Day: Following the Founders is 'Dumb'

John Trumbull [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON, DC — Hillsdale College, a school which requires every student to take a class on the Constitution, proved its dedication to intellectual diversity by hosting a panel with a Stanford professor who openly attacked the Constitution. The panel formed part of the college’s Constitution Day celebration in the nation’s capital.


“The ultimate problem” holding back good government in America “is the Constitution itself,” declared Terry Moe, politics professor at Stanford University and co-author of Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government–and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency. “The Founders crafted a government 225 years ago for a simple, isolated, and agrarian society of less than 4 million people — about the size of Los Angeles today.”

In comments to PJ Media after the panel, Moe went even further. “Give [the Founders] a lot of credit for what they did, but to think that we’re stuck with what they did 225 years ago? That’s dumb,” the professor declared.

Moe argued that the problem in the American system is Congress, not the president. “As a decision-maker, Congress is just inexcusably bad,” he said in his presentation. While some say polarization is causing the gridlock in the national government, he argued that it is “wired” into the Constitution.

“Congress is just not wired to solve national problems in a national way,” Moe explained. “It’s wired to allow hundreds of parochial legislators to promote their own welfare through special-interest politics.” The president, however, is nationally elected and can make decisions unilaterally.


Moe suggested a “fast track” system, where the president would propose legislation and Congress would vote on whether or not to adopt it — effectively reversing the constitutional method of doing things. He argued that this would not make the president a dictator, but merely change the process. Despite this, he insisted that he still considered the Constitution “very admirable.” Despite the crowd’s clear disagreement with his ideas, his presentation earned respectful applause.

While Moe argued for increasing the power of the presidency at the expense of Congress, another panelist said that “presidential governments are bad for liberty.” Frank H. Buckley, a foundation professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, a senior editor of The American Spectator, and author of The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, openly declared that America “was free not because of the Constitution, but in spite of the Constitution.”

Buckley argued that the United States has a presidential form of government, and that that is bad for liberty. “Right now what we have is a president who can make and unmake laws without the consent of Congress, he can spend trillions of government dollars on his own, and he can take us to war without the consent of Congress,” the professor said. “The separation of powers, which many think the cornerstone of the Constitution, no longer seems to bind him. He is the Rex Quondam Rex Futuris, the once and future king.”


This does not bode well for America, because when Buckley studied 89 presidential regimes and 50 parliamentary ones over a 39-year period, measuring these governments using Freedom House’s calculation of economic and political freedom, he found that presidential governments were bad for liberty. Parliamentary countries became constitutional monarchies, while presidential countries became dictatorships. America posed a unique case, where a presidential government had not trampled on the rights of the people.

But Buckley was not optimistic about America’s future. The United states was once “a country with Pascal’s God-shaped hole in our hearts,” but now “it’s not a God-filled hole, it’s an Obama-filled hole.” He quoted the existentialist writer Albert Camus, who once said of a fictional character that he “is the only Christ that we deserve.” This professor tweaked with the meaning slightly.

“Donald Trump is the only Christ that we deserve.”

Next Page: The case for the Constitution.

Ronald J. Pestritto, dean of Hillsdale’s Graduate School of Statesmanship, defended the Constitution, arguing that the vigilance of the American people, not their form of government, is the problem. He called it a “tragedy” that conservatives would even discuss whether or not to keep the Constitution. “The great silver lining of the Obama years” was the energy on the Right to return to the limited government of our Founders, but the Republican Party had “utterly squandered” the electoral victories of the Tea Party.


Nevertheless, the Constitution is not the fundamental bulwark of American liberty. “Even the most perfect constitution is, of course, no guarantee of success, and this is something that was well understood by our Framers, and which we we do well to remind ourselves of today,” Pestritto declared.

The grad school dean cited The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to defend the new Constitution while it was being ratified in 1787. “For all their enthusiasm in defending the structure and the mechanisms of the Constitution, Madison and Hamilton are very careful in that book to emphasize that these things are only what they call ‘auxiliary precautions.'”

The “even more important” thing for “defending the people’s liberty … is what they call the vigilance of the people, or the people’s ‘vigilant and manly spirit,'” Pestritto argued. “No constitution can help a people whose vigilance and spirit has become deeply and even permanently corrupted. So before we even ask if the Constitution needs to be revised or replaces, one must first determine, it seems to me, if the people themselves are fit for constitutional government.”

On this score, the grad school dean found a great deal of room for improvement. He noted that administrative agencies and the courts have the greatest amount of power in our current government, even though neither are elected. He recalled how Congress emphatically rejected the auto bailouts and “cap and trade” energy legislation, but administrative agencies carried out those policies anyway.


In a chilling declaration, Pestritto called on the American people to stop acting as though the Supreme Court alone gets to decide what is and is not constitutional. He argued that The Federalist Papers explicitly contradicts this idea, dividing the fundamental roles of government between the three branches.

Indeed, the dean even went further, outlining President Abraham Lincoln’s refusal to follow Dred Scott v. Sandford as a declaration of constitutional precedent. While Lincoln accepted the ruling of the Court in that particular case, he argued that the Court had mistaken the Constitution, and directed his administration to act as though that case was wrongly decided. Lincoln’s State Department continued to issue passports to blacks, even though the Court said they could not be citizens.

“Our Constitution is not the problem, we are the problem,” Pestritto warned. Once we restore the “vigilance and manly spirit of the people,” the dean argued, “I think we will find that the Constitution we have will be more than adequate.”

Disclosure: The author is a Hillsdale College graduate from 2012.


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