Atlantic Dimensions 8

Though in the 1790s numerous German newspapers, pamphlets, and books had carried notices of the Anglo-American conflict, often distorted, and translations of certain key documents had been avail¬able, it was not until 1800, with the publication of Friedrich von Gentz’s comparative study of the American and French revolu-tions—the study that had caught the eye of Quincy Adams—that the importance of American constitutionalism was presented in sys¬tematic form, and not until 1824, with the publication of Robert von Mohl’s examination of America’s “Bundes-Staatsrecht”, that the entire machinery of American constitutionalism (the “miracle of our times,” Mohl called it) was fully explored and its relevance to the German states clearly seen. Thereafter, with the rapid growth of interest in the possibility of a German confederation, more and more attention was devoted to the American model. Encyclopedias carried freshly written accounts, the translation of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America went through thirteen printings before 1850, and the Federalist papers circulated widely, as did copies of the American Constitution. By 1848, when the German Constituent Assembly met in Frankfurt to frame a confederate state, a professor in that city could write: “The American name … never stood higher, every¬where are works and pamphlets in bookstores and on center tables in our institutions, and almost every orator points to them as a glori¬ous example.”
And indeed much of the discussion in the Frankfurt Assembly focused on American constitutionalism—its federalism, its protection of rights, its system of representation, its separation of church and state, and its management of the military and foreign alfairs. Though in the end the differences between the United States, protected by the Atlantic moat, and Germany as a collection not of republics but of monarchies, came to dominate the debate—and though in any case the Frankfurt Constitution was ultimately rejected—that assembly, even more than the French Constitutional Assembly of 1848, where American constitutionalism was also extensively discussed, marked the ultimate influence of American constitutionalism within the liv¬ing memory of the Revolutionary generation. In the generations that have followed, that influence has remained pervasive—not merely in the design of specific constitutions but mainly and increasingly, as America’s power has grown, in its embodiment of established Western values.
Two centuries after its creation by provincials developing the minority ideas of the Commonwealthmen, American constitutional¬ism, having radiated throughout the Atlantic world, has become a classic formulation for the world at large of effectiveness and con¬straint in the humane uses of power. But like all classic formulations, it has been and is now being questioned by people with other values, other aspirations, other beliefs in the proper uses of power—people who do not believe with Tocqueville and Troxler that American con¬stitutionalism is a “work of art” or with Condorcet that the rights embedded in the American Constitution are “the natural rights of humanity,” and who emphatically challenge Jefferson’s belief that it is America’s destiny to extend to other regions of the earth what he called “the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.”
Those challenges will continue and will intensify in the years ahead, but I think an equally important challenge is our own respon¬sibility to probe the character of our constitutional establishment, as the eighteenth-century provincials probed the establishment they faced, to recognize that for many in our own time and within our own culture, it has become scholastic in its elaboration, self-absorbed, self- centered, and in significant ways distant from the ordinary facts of life.
And so one thinks back with increasing respect to the words of that worthy Connecticut jurist Oliver Ellsworth, who insisted that it is not enough to say that the traditional principles of political thought are irrefutable. One needs to know why. One needs “some reason.”

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