News Release: Law

Apr. 21,  2008

U.S. Constitution Based on Ancient Writings, Says Emory's Bederman

Aristotle and other ancient texts may seem irrelevant to modern-day issues such as gun control, but as Emory Law professor David Bederman argues in his new book, "The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution," classical Greek and Roman thinkers had a profound effect on the framers of the document -- and on our courts' interpretation of it today.

"The intent of the framers weighs heavily on current interpretations of Constitutional law and modern cases being heard," said Bederman, an associated faculty member of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory. So it helps to know how the framers of the Constitution were thinking.

One example is a Second Amendment case the U.S. Supreme Court heard in March. Does the right to "keep and bear arms" guarantee an individual the right to have a gun for private use, or does it only guarantee a collective right to have guns in state-regulated militia? Five of the justices signaled that they think the amendment does give individuals the right to have a gun for self-defense.

When interpreting the Second Amendment, says Bederman, it is useful to know that Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington and other framers of the U.S. Constitution were products of a classical education, with an emphasis on Greek and Latin languages and literature.

"In this case, the justices received a lot of briefing about what the amendment would have meant to the framers," he says. "With its unique grammar, the first two clauses almost seem to be a preamble, a throat clearing. But one of the most interesting briefs, filed by a group of linguists and historians, argues that the framers often wrote in Latinate form, heavily influenced by their childhood education. This would make the preamble as important as the clauses that came after."

Bederman's meticulously researched book, third in a trilogy he's written on law and antiquity, reveals that many of the essential aspects of the Constitution -- including separation of powers among the branches of federal government, the two chambers of Congress, independent courts and federalism -- were informed by ancient political models.

"I am suggesting a simple, but subversive, idea: that the members of the framing generation were as much influenced by the... experiences of classical antiquity as they were by Enlightenment liberal philosophy and by the exigencies of the struggle against Great Britain," he says.

The book explores the classical influences on the framing generation, the framer's original intent in drafting various provisions of the Constitution, and a view of our country's supreme document of law as a "classical Constitution."

While hardly great scholars by today's standards, the leaders of the framing generation were, to a large degree, college-educated, Bederman notes: Of the 56 members of the Continental Congress that deliberated the Declaration of Independence, 27 had college backgrounds and others had achieved this level of education through self-study.

On whole, they prized the works of such Greek and Roman writers and philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Livy, and Tacitus. ("Thomas Jefferson was such a book junkie that he almost went bankrupt. His collection became basis for the Library of Congress," says Bederman.)

The framers had an onerous and momentous charge. "How do you create a new political order, a new form of government? And how do you make it last? That's what the framers had to do," Bederman notes.

And, he adds, they succeeded. No modern country has lived under the same Constitution as long as Americans. "The genius of the framing generation in creating such a robust form of government -- one that has survived sectional rivalry and civil war, vast territorial expansion and emergence into Great Power status... would have been appreciated by their classical forebears."

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