Founded on founding

Prior to the founding of America, argues Hannah Arendt in On Revolution , political orders were justified and legitimated by appeal to absolutes: “a divinity, not nature but nature’s God, not reason but a divinely informed reason” gave validity to political order and buttressed political power.

Over time, the early colonists were pressured by circumstance to abandon this tradition and to settle on something else. Arendt argues that, in some opposition to Enlightenment hostility to tradition, they settled on a reinvention of the traditional Roman idea that the founding act serves as a foundation of political authority.

Arendt writes, “when, under the pressure of circumstances – in far of the new continent’s uncharted wilderness and frightened by the chartless darkness of the human heart – they had constituted themselves into ‘civil bodies politic,’ mutually bound themselves into an enterprise for which no other bond existed, and thus made a new beginning in the very midst of the history of Western mankind” (194). Here was a polity founded not on ancient tradition but on “promises, covenants, and mutual pledges” (181-2).

Hence the American penchant to revert always to the founding and the founding documents, our constant reinterpretation and extension of the Constitution. It is, as it were, a ritual of refounding.

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