• Hillsdale – Virtus Tentamine Gaudet

    July 3, 2024
    Hillsdale College

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    My wife Andrée and I attended a week’s worth of classes related to the U.S. Constitution from June 23 to June 28 offered at Hillsdale College. The classes, a rare treat, were taught by four of Hillsdale’s accomplished professors: Paul Rahe, Will Morrisey, John Grant, and Joseph Postell, all of them sitting comfortably on the shoulders of the intellectual and philosophical giants to whom we owe the creation of the American Republic and its precocious child, the U.S. Constitution.

    Hillsdale offers courses to the general public and distributes its newsletter Imprimis at no cost to the reader. I’ve long regarded Imprimis as an indispensable tool in managing mentally our bewildering postmodern age.

    The college was also offering a like course on Literature from Athens to Oak Park, Illinois, the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. The literature professor, Whalen Gillespie, conducted a pocket class during which anyone was able to question him on any literary subject. I was able to put to him a question that had tormented me for years: Given what Shakespeare had written concerning the monarchy in his plays, not all of it flattering to monarchical rule, how was he able to escape hanging?

    Gillespie’s answer was full of enticing historical details touching on recusancy, Ben Johnson, a playwright and promoter of Shakespeare, and the bard’s character, very different from that of Johnson, whose words and actions tended to be flamboyant.

    Shakespeare, on the other hand was convivial, witty, and, if the questioner will forgive the assessment, sly in the matter of social convention, politics and religion.

    There is good deal of evidence to suggest that Shakespeare’s father was a recusant Catholic, and little and some disputed historical evidence to show that Will Shakespeare was in this regard a chip off his father’s block.

    Ben Johnson was for a time boisterously rebellious, a recusant Catholic who declined to pay a fine levied against those in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom who did not attend services at a state approved Anglican Church.

    But one day Johnson changed his mind. Imagine the scene: the church doors burst open, Johnson marched down the aisle, grabbed the chalice and, with one gulp, downed it, signaling his acceptance of the new orthodoxy. Naturally, fines against him were lifted.

    “Shakespeare,” Gillespie said, “was not like that.”

    The seminars on Constitutional issues were highly detailed, and stress was laid upon the differences of a Constitutional order and a progressive rendering of the American experiment.

    Despite the efforts of progressive President Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States (1913–21), to treat the U.S. Constitution as a species of statutory law – rather than a form of governance – the United States will celebrate the 250th birth of the nation in two short years.

    That celebration started at the foundation of Hillsdale College in 1844. The twin mottos of Hillsdale College -- “virtus tentamine gaudet,” (strength rejoices in the challenge) and "pursuing truth and defending liberty, since 1844” – are well chosen. Travelling about the campus, one encounters undefiled statues of The Young Soldier, dedicated in 1895 to honor Hillsdale’s soldiers who fought in the Civil War to end slavery and reinstitute a broken union, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and even Ronald Reagan, found, appropriately, at Hillsdale’s Shooting Range.

    Cardinal Newman says somewhere that 1) to know and 2) to know that one knows are two entirely different things. Following a true classical liberal arts education, to which Hillsdale is passionately devoted, a student will both know and know that he knows. His or her knowledge will be a lifelong bulwark against slovenly thought, always the enemy of liberty and justice. Hillsdale’s classical liberal arts education is one of the most comprehensive offered anywhere in the United States, largely because of the quality and dedication of its staff.

    It is impossible in such a short review as this to touch on all the courses we hungrily devoured during our stay. The four professors presented us with a small “r” republican review of governance from Greece and Rome to the postmodern period. Classes were relatively brief, about an hour and a half. There were four classes a day with each of the above-named professors, and the course on “Constitutional Issues and Controversies” lasted from June 23 through June 28.

    The meals we were served at Hillsdale, I should mention, were various and superb, a reminder that the way to a married couple’s heart and mind is through their stomachs. Hillsdale is very big on marriage, child upbringing, and lifesaving and rewarding intellectual labor. At Hillsdale “Learning, Character, Faith, and Freedom” are the indispensable building blocks of a sound Republic. Everyone at Hillsdale is mindful of the admonition given by Benjamin Franklin to Mrs. Elizabeth Powel when she asked him, following the conclusion of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in September 1787, “Sir, what have you given us?”

    “A Republic, madam – if you can keep it,” Franklin responded.

    It is much easier to keep the American Republic than to reinvent an alternative.

    Joseph Postell, Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College, is keenly aware of the possibility of losing the American Republic to slovenly intellectual and moral re-inventers of the American Republic who could not find Hillsdale College on a Michigan map. Hint: It’s in Hillsdale.

    Postell’s most recent book is Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional Government.

    The course ended for us with Postell’s final presentation on the perils of the administrative state, during which Postell launched a vigorous attack on the father of American Progressivism, Woodrow Wilson, an academic egghead before he entered the White House.

    Wilson laid the groundwork for the progressive reinterpretation of the Constitution in “What is Progress?”, a campaign speech he delivered in 1912 in which he prayed  to the progressive gods to deliver the nation from Newtonian theory, the checks and balances of the Constitution, and the principal outworn political theories of John Locke and Montesquieu.

    The non-mechanical universe is guided by the Darwinian theory of an organic, living universe, Wilson spouted. Checks and balances prevent organic development, and “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice … All that progressives ask or desire is permission -- in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution’ is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”

    There is, Postell asserted, a direct and causative line from Wilsonian Constitutional reinterpretation to our postmodern, unrestrained, progressive Leviathan.  Unchecked organic growth in the absence of restraint has led to a moral and political universe that has more in common with Thomas Hobbes than Darwin. And in the Hobbesian universe, life is “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

    The absence of moral and political checks and balances, however mechanical, leads to a progressive, self-mutating political structure in which decisive political decisions are made not by an enlightened president, or even by enlightened academics like Wilson. Instead, important economic and cultural decisions are fashioned by an ever growing, organic, unrestrained and unelected administrative state such as prevailed in a shattered Roman Republic under Suetonius’ twelve Caesars.

    Hours after we returned home, the Supreme Court, in a masterful decision, clipped the wings of audacious progressives and returned the authority to make laws where they belonged – to a timid and occasionally cowardly legislative branch. A constitutionally conscious Supreme Court struck down a 1984 decision, Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council that had established what had come to be called the “Chevron deference”, after which, according to Forbes Media, “Government entities went on a binge of creating rules and regulations that were hard to challenge in court. Now the Supreme Court has resuscitated Article III of the Constitution, which says the courts are supposed to handle cases or controversies that arise from federal law. The ruling made the sharp distinction between agency expertise in, say, the specifics of airline safety, versus interpreting laws, which is up to the judiciary.”

    Future U.S. Congresses will find it more difficult on the heels of that decision to farm out its constitutionally balanced legislative powers to a wildly ungoverned organic administrative state.

    Postell will be pleased.

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    Don Pesci

    Don Pesci is a political columnist of long standing, about 40 years, who has written for various state newspapers, among them The Journal Inquirer, the Waterbury Republican American, the New London Day, the Litchfield County Times, the Torrington Register Citizen and other Register Citizen papers. He maintains a blog, among the oldest of its kind in Connecticut, which serves as a repository and archive, for his columns; there are approximately 3,000 entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State, virtually all of them political columns stretching back to 2004. He also appears once a week Wednesdays on 1080 WTIC Newstalk radio with Will Marotti.

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