Mortimer Adler: Teaching the Constitution

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Engaging in a Socratic dialogue with students at St. John’s College in Annapolis, philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler offers insights in “America’s testament.”


Mortimer Adler with Bill MoyersMORTIMER ADLER: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

BILL MOYERS: What goes through your mind when you read those words to the Preamble?

MORTIMER ADLER: Chills up and down my back. It moves me deeply that these men, in creating this document, which is the instrument of government, thought of these purposes, even though they thought of them late in the course of the day. They thought of these purposes as the ends to be served by the instrument they had created.

BILL MOYERS: Well, we’re still not there.

BILL MOYERS: But first and foremost, Mortimer Adler is a teacher, demanding of his students the hard thought he says democracy demands of its citizens.

MALE STUDENT: There’s certainly some of that. It’s not everything, but—

BILL MOYERS: His favorite subject this year is the United States Constitution. Adler has written a book, his 40th, called WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS: UNDERSTANDING THE IDEAS AND IDEALS OF THE CONSTITUTION.

FEMALE STUDENT: …so the southern states, by seceding, were breaking the Constitution and that very act was unconstitutional.

BILL MOYERS: And in this program he will discuss the Constitution with students of St. John’s College in Maryland.

I’m hoping for the future. I’m hoping that we can change the schools, at least in this respect. That we do something that really turns out in the next generation and after that young men and women who understand, not only the ideas and ideals, but who feel the moral obligation to uphold them.
MORTIMER ADLER: We’re talking about how far should liberty go? What are the blessings of liberty?

MORTIMER ADLER: Still not there by far.

BILL MOYERS: At the age of 85, Mortimer Adler has been many things: Philosopher, author, editor —

BILL MOYERS: Mortimer Adler will teach and, in turn, be taught a thing or two.

MORTIMER ADLER: I see. I may be wrong about that of America’s best known entrepreneurs of ideas.

MORTIMER ADLER: Do you think that the general welfare clause includes equality?

FEMALE STUDENT: I think it can be argued that — took that position in the book and I listened to your argument. Maybe that should be revised. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

BILL MOYERS: It is two hundred years old.

MALE VOICE: One country, one constitution, one destiny.

BILL MOYERS: We have revered and debated it.

MALE VOICE: Like the Bible, it ought to be read again and again.

MALE VOICE : People made the Constitution and the people can unmake it.

BILL MOYERS: We have honored and criticized it.

FEMALE VOICE: My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete.

MALE VOICE: The prejudices of the day are called constitutional law.

BILL MOYERS: We even fought a bloody civil war over it.

MALE VOICE: This covenant with death, this agreement with hell, this refuge of lies.

BILL MOYERS: But we have lived with it. We are still living with it today, still debating it, still In Search of the Constitution.

BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers in the library of one of America’ s first schools, St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, with roots that go back all the way to our revolutionary past. Patriots gathered under the school’s Liberty Tree to hear orators cry for freedom. Four of the college founders signed the Declaration of Independence.

The French camped here en route to help George Washington defeat the British at Yorktown. And some of the fallen French soldiers are buried on the college grounds in unmarked graves. St. John’s is a fitting place to explore the history and meaning of the American Constitution. Ideas are the life source of this place. They emerge in the give and take of seminars, students and teachers sharing an equality of conversation. They read and discuss classical works of science, philosophy and literature. And they use original texts such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and de Tocqueville ‘s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. Mortimer Adler and the late Robert Hutchins pioneered the curriculum based on the great books and Adler has long been a familiar and frequent visitor to these halls.

MORTIMER ADLER: What’s unique about St. John’s is this— there’s two things. An absolutely required program, no electives, and every member of the faculty must teach the whole program. There are no professors in this college and no departments. There’s only one title. Everyone has the same title. Fellow and tutor of the college. And every member of the faculty teaches the whole program.

BILL MOYERS: And the whole program is?

MORTIMER ADLER: Great books seminars Tuesday and Thursday nights, one formal lecture a week on Friday night for the whole college and three tutorials in mathematics, in language and in science.

BILL MOYERS: Really the classics.

BILL MOYERS: Adler’s annual lecture is a tradition on campus and so is the annual prank played on him by the senior class.

MORTIMER ADLER: I wish to thank the senior class for honoring the seriousness of this occasion in our country’ s Bicentennial by forgoing the traditional Adler Prank. In 1938 in the Great Hall I started at 8:15 as usual and at 9:15 every alarm clock in the college went off in the balcony. I paused until they stopped and continued the lecture. In 1939, they thought they could stop me. Again, I started at 8:15. At 9:15 someone pulled the main switch and the room was in complete darkness. But I took some matches out of my pocket and continued the lecture. And since then, every year we’ve had an Adler Prank and some have been quite marvelous and others pretty good. The Bicentennial celebrated by the United States of America in 1976 was the 200th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence. But it certainly was not the bicentennial of the nation the world knows by that name today. And if you really want, I think, the birth date, the birth of this nation, the date when it actually came into being, it is the day that Washington took the oath of office, I think March 9, 1789. That’s the bicentennial moment.

BILL MOYERS: Bicentennial or not, the junior class doesn’t feel bound to the agreement of their seniors. At a most solemn moment, the juniors deliver a pizza, apparently because Mortimer Adler is known for what he eats, as well as for what he thinks.

MORTIMER ADLER: I am sorry that I have to tell you that most Americans who hold the high office of citizenship, the highest office in the land, for it’s the primary off ice that any other officeholder must have first of all, do not understand their role as citizens and are not prepared to be citizens. The kind of schooling we now give them does not prepare them for that, as I can tell you having gone around the country and tried to read these documents. The four—the three documents that constitute what I would call America’s testament, the Declaration, the Constitution with the Preamble and its amendments and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And add to that, perhaps, THE FEDERALIST PAPERS and the Tocqueville’s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. These are not read by any of our high schools or elementary schools. They’re not read in most of our colleges. And when they are read, as I’ve found out, they are not understood at all. Now in what sense can we regard these young people who are going into the high office of citizenship as able to carry out the mandate that they should have as the ruling class in this country? I would say in closing that unless we radically reform the school system of the United States, radically reform it, teach the young how to read these documents and have them read them, unless we somehow prepare them for citizenship, as they’re not prepared now, the future of this country, both politically and economically, is seriously in question. Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: You said in there you found no high school students of late who ‘d read the Constitution, the Declaration—?

MORTIMER ADLER: Not one. Not one in a hundred thousand has read these documents. And when I read them with them, they don’t understand a word of them. Don’t understand a word of them.

BILL MOYERS: If you go to Washington, you ‘ll find the Constitution encased there in a, almost like a sacred relic. Do we treat it with too much reverence?

MORTIMER ADLER: We treat it the way Christians say The Lord’s Prayer without understanding it. They mouth words. We bow to it and don’t understand it. I think it’s the most—if Christians, if religious Christians, according to our Puritan ancestors, should spend the Sabbath reading the Holy Writ and going to church and worshipping God, citizens should read Holy Writ, the American testament, which—the secular testament, which is the constitution, the Declaration and Lincoln ‘s Gettysburg Address and understand it.

BILL MOYERS: They’re calling you.

BILL MOYERS: Here in the Great Hall, where the dancing once attracted heroes of the American Revolution like General Lafayette, the celebration these days is an intellectual exploration of the American experience under our Constitution.

MALE STUDENT: What aspect of the Constitution is most commonly misunderstood? You said through your visits—?

MORTIMER ADLER: I said NOT understood, not misunderstood. The young people at various levels of schooling with whom I’ve read the Preamble, a very short document, or that second great paragraph of the Declaration, do not know what the word ‘truth’ means. You say—I ask them after—if they ever told a lie. And they always say, “Yes, I’ve told a lie.” And I ask, well, how do you tell a lie? And what is a lie when you tell them? They don’t know the answer to that question. If they don’t know the answer to that question, they can’t say when anything is true or false. ‘Self-evident’ they don’t understand. I say, “Have you taken a course in geometry?” They all say they have. In fact, their language is as follows: “I had geometry.” That means, “Don’t dare ask me a question about it. I had it. I passed the examination. That’s done with. And, therefore, you can’t say, what is an axiom? What is a postulate? What is a theorem? What’s the difference between a provable and unprovable proposition? Not one student in a million can tell you what ‘equal’ and ‘unequal’ means. So how can they read these documents? They aren’t taught to read that way. It is—I think it’s a frightening, a frightening failure of our country to allow young people to grow up in that degree of, shall I say, untrained, undisciplined minds that they can’t read these documents, which are the very heart and soul of this country.

BILL MOYERS: Mortimer Adler expects his students of every age to grasp the core of the American experience – ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the Constitution, texts he will discuss with this select group of St. John’s students in a special seminar. He traces these ideals, justice and union, domestic tranquility and the common defense, liberty and the general welfare, in his own most recent book.

MORTIMER ADLER: In THE LAWS, Plato says that every basic law, and certainly the Constitution is the fundamental law of the land, should have a Preamble. Let me tell you something you may not know. Only in the last 48 hours, just before the Constitution was given to the public, sent to New York to the Congress, did anyone think of writing a Preamble. Do you think that the Preamble was an afterthought among our Founding Fathers? What would you say?

FEMALE STUDENT: They’re ideals.

MORTIMER ADLER: Ideals, the objectives.

MALE STUDENT: Objectives of the—

MORTIMER ADLER: Don’t you think it’s odd that—If you were writing a constitution to serve some objectives, don’t you think you ought to state the objectives first, then draft the constitution as an instrument for serving those objectives? They drafted it at the very end, didn’t they?

MALE STUDENT: I don’t think that that’s necessarily unnatural because they would have these ideals in their head and—

MORTIMER ADLER: You mean you think of them as merely putting on paper the ideals they all had in their heads even though they—

MALE STUDENT: I think they all knew what had to be ensured by the Constitution.


SINIS: I think they must have had their purpose in mind before—

MORTIMER ADLER: Their purposes. It’s plural, right?

SINIS: Their purposes, yes.

MALE STUDENT: So if the Constitution, itself, is the framework that everything falls into, this is the setting out that states what the framework is—

MORTIMER ADLER: That phrasing of the Preamble, we, the people of the United States, in order to do this, do this, do this, do this, do ordain this Constitution. That is an extraordinary statement of what we’re doing it for. And the Constitution really provides the instrumentalities for doing it, correct?

BILL MOYERS: Most people never quote the Preamble. Supreme Court justices, lawyers—

MORTIMER ADLER: It’s hardly a consideration in ordinary constitutional law. But, and I have to add something that I think is very important, actually the Preamble was written at the very last moment, the last 48 hours, by Gouverneur Morris.


MORTIMER ADLER: Well, I think without it the document would be a body without a head. This is the head of the body. It really says what they’re doing. They’re establishing the Constitution of the United States of America for these reasons and for these purposes. Just how would it read without it? Moreover, I would go further, Bill, and I’d say that to look at the Constitution without this is not to see what it’s all about. These are the ideals, the objectives, the goals that the government is created to serve. The articles of the Constitution have no ideas and ideals in them. The articles are merely the machinery of government to serve these purposes.

BILL MOYERS: In other words, the Preamble breathes life into the rule book.

MORTIMER ADLER: That’s right. It is the spirit of the thing. Without it, it’s, I’d say, a headless body. Let me add one other thing, Bill. The United States is the only country in which the officers of government, everyone holds a political office in the federal government, and all officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Force swear their allegiance to the Constitution, to defend and uphold it. Not their allegiance to the King, not their allegiance to the State, not their loyalty to any other person, but—not even to the nation, but to the Constitution. That’ s how strong this country is in its devotion to the Constitution.

BILL MOYERS: But it’s really more, is it not, than to this document, this rule book?

MORTIMER ADLER: I think it should be to the ideals that the Constitution stands for. That’s why the Preamble is so important.

BILL MOYERS: But look at some of those words we, the people-

MORTIMER ADLER: Let me comment on that for a moment. Stop right there. Every other law, except the Constitution, is not made by the people, but by the legislature. This law is made by the people of the United States—that means their representatives—and resubmitted to them for ratification and adoption. This—a constitutional law does not proceed from a legislature because, after all, Article 1 of the Constitution creates the legislature. Therefore, the Constitution, itself, is not a legislative enactment. It’s an enactment by the people in the country.

BILL MOYERS: And yet that’s the catch because the Constitution as it was finally written and adopted excluded the young because of their age, women because of their gender, Blacks because of their color, white males who couldn’t pay a poll tax and only five percent of the people in the states ratified—

MORTIMER ADLER: You ‘re quite correct, but, you see, the word ‘people’ is not synonymous with population. ‘The people’ are that part of the pop—the people, the word ‘people’, politically means that part of the population who have the status that enables them to act politically. Until the suffrage is extended to Blacks, to women, to the poor, the people, until this century, the people of the United States, as opposed to the population of the United States, was a small fraction of the population.

MORTIMER ADLER: When a government is tyrannical, it is obviously—the word ‘tyranny’ has the connotation of injustice for you, doesn’t it? Tyranny is an injustice . Those who are tyrannically ruled are unjustly treated, correct? Well, Madison, James Madison in the tenth Federalist Paper, which you’ve all read, is very much concerned, as de Tocqueville was also, as John Stuart Mill was later, about in a republican government, a constitutional government, where the principle of majority rule prevails, that the majority—not just merely a despot can be tyrannical, but the majority can be tyrannical and misrule and adversely treat a minority, correct? Do you know anything about our constitutional government that tells you how we managed to, shall I say, correct, overcome the tyranny of the majority?

MALE STUDENT: The judiciary.

MORTIMER ADLER: Tell me about that, please.

MALE STUDENT: In setting it separate from the, legislative and executive branch, to a certain degree, it has the responsibility of judging laws that are enacted—

MORTIMER ADLER: The power of judicial review.

MALE STUDENT: Right. And to see if they’re in accord with the Constitution.

MORTIMER ADLER: Is that power in the Constitution? As you read the third article, does it say that the Supreme Court shall have the power to review legislative and executive acts and declare them unconstitutional and things like that?

MALE STUDENT: No, it doesn’t.

MORTIMER ADLER: How’d it happen then?

MALE STUDENT: It’s this thing that developed over time with—

MORTIMER ADLER: Essentially, even though unwritten, not in the writing of the Constitution, it is an essential part of our government, is it not?

MALE STUDENT: It is. It’s what keeps the majority not becoming a tyrant.

MORTIMER ADLER: For example, in England, which is a constitutional government too, an act of Parliament, which may be unjust because there’s a tyrannical majority mistreating a minority in England, can only be changed by another act of Parliament. There is no device anything like our Supreme Court ‘s judicial review of legislation in England. And, therefore, there’s no way to overcome the tyranny of the majority in England except by the majority, itself, changing its mind.

MALE STUDENT: Federal judges are appointed and Supreme Court justices are appointed by a president and it doesn’t seem as though the mechanism itself necessarily protects us because it could become a political instrument in the case of judges.

MORTIMER ADLER: No one claims it’s a perfect system. The question is: is it a better system than any other that exists? And there I would not hesitate affirmatively. Not to have judicial review, I think, is no protection against the tyranny of the majority. To have it gives us some protection, not that it always works perfectly.

FEMALE STUDENT: Mr. Adler, can I connect something with what Mr. Szweda is saying, and I think this has to be pressed, although it hasn’t been mentioned. Redress of grievances in this country to the Supreme Court is a very long and complicated process and for some reason, maybe if there’s some way that that redress of grievances is not so long and complicated, I mean, I feel that has a lot to do with the political sense of redress. I’m not arguing—the Supreme Court is a great mechanism for redress of grievances. But it is so long and so complicated and that’s part of—that could be construed as—

MORTIMER ADLER: But even longer is appeal to the public majority to change the color of Congress. That’ll take longer even still, you see. But you’re thoroughly right though, Miss Dalton, on this point. The civil peace, the thing that is at the very heart of domestic tranquility, is the ability of the people of the United States to try to redress their grievances without resort to violence. Means of civil dissent, means of appeal to legislation, I mean, in fact, Theodore Roosevelt proposed that our Constitution contain the amendments of referendum, initiative and recall to give the people even more access to means of addressing their grievances.

DALTON: Right, and more access is what we need right now. It’s a very long and complicated process to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court, as- (MUMBLED VOICES)

MALE STUDENT: Ms. Dalton, the fact that it takes so long is an attribute because think of how many cases there would be in the Supreme Court if they didn’t have that weeding out process, if they didn’t have these courts that said, well, we’re going to decide this right now. Or we’re going to decide that this is not something to be—

MORTIMER ADLER: And they don’t take most of the cases that come before them.

MALE STUDENT: Look at circuit courts now, look at them today.

FEMALE STUDENT: I have a feeling it lends itself to more violence rather than—

MORTIMER ADLER: The ideal you’re stating is whenever the people feel they have a real grievance, you want them to have a civil means of dissent, a lawful way of getting their grievances redressed rapidly. That’s the ideal, isn’t it? As rapidly as possible.

FEMALE STUDENT: Just so it doesn’t break out into violence.

MALE STUDENT: I think it might be better if the people had some kind of means of recall on the justices-

MALE STUDENT: See, that’s the problem, if you enter into that problem then you get this problem of being too political. And already there are signs, you know, that politics is influencing. And if you have some means of redress with the Supreme Court, you might get into the fact that then they have to make majority political decisions. Instead, when you give them life, it gives them that distance from the people that I think you’re referring to-

MALE STUDENT: But don’t we say that justice is based on the consent of the people?

MORTIMER ADLER: No, no, never. Justice is not—justice is something quite separate from the consent of the people.

MALE STUDENT: Well, see, I don’t see what the difference is. I don’t see how the justices can’t uphold a tyranny of the minority.

MORTIMER ADLER: I don’t think there’s any possibility in a constitutional government of having tyranny minority because we pass all our legislation by majority vote .So the whole problem is the tyranny of the majority, not the tyranny of the minority. How do those unjust laws get corrected? That is the problem. Overcoming or correcting the tyranny of legislation by a majority that treats the minority of the people unjustly.

FEMALE STUDENT: Well, there’s a problem.

MORTIMER ADLER: What’s the problem?

FEMALE STUDENT: This problem—when this Constitution was set up, in the First Article we have an enunciation of who is counted when we gets representation. And you notice it’s a very selective count. We have property holders later on, we only have white males that end up being property holders at that time. So it is possible to get a tyranny of the minority due to the fact that there are so many people who are disenfranchised.

MORTIMER ADLER: But Miss Dalton, you do recognize, don’t you, that in the course of the 200 years, the amendments to the Constitution have removed everything you’re talking about. That’s why—I’ m sorry, you have to remember we corrected those defects in the Constitution by the civil war amendments, by the women’s suffrage amendment. The progress this country has made from the 18th to the 20th century is the emergence of democracy. It didn’t happen all at once.

MALE STUDENT: They didn’t pretend to have a democratic constitution.

MORTIMER ADLER: In fact, they were against democracy. They were expressedly against democracy. I have to clear up a confusion here. We’ve used two phrases and you’re not clear what they mean. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ means a majority in the legislature. The tyranny of the minority’ occurred when, you’re quite correct, the ruling class, the citizens who were a small faction of the population, could be tyrannical, that could be a tyrannical minority. But that’s a different point. Just keep it clearly distinct from the other meaning of a tyranny of a legislative majority. Those are two different things and we’ve corrected both.

MORTIMER ADLER: If this document were not amended with the first 10 amendments, with all the amendments that followed, and existed today only as it was written and adopted in 1787, 88, 89, I would not regard it with reverence. I would fight it.


MORTIMER ADLER: Because it’s unjust. Because it’s intrinsically perfectly obvious unjust. Think of all the amendments that made it just.

BILL MOYERS: So it’s the American experience, the struggle for democracy, the constantly widening of the horizons of equality that have breathed into this document the experience that followed it.

MORTIMER ADLER: And you have to say that our Founding Fathers allowed for that. I have a quotation here that. I want to read you from Madison, who was one of the more conservative writers of the Constitution.

BILL MOYERS: And who is really considered the architect of the Constitution.

MORTIMER ADLER: This is in 1819. What could not but happen and was foreseen at the birth of the Constitution, that difficulties and differences of opinion might occasionally arise in expounding terms and phrases necessarily used in such a charter, and that it might require a regular course of practice to liquidate and settle the meaning of some of them. I mean, he was conscious of the fact that judicial interpretation and amendment would have to take place.

BILL MOYERS: It bothers me when young people, anyone, but young people in particular, think it’s all over, when they take for granted this document, when they don’t realize every generation struggles to put its own meaning into the Constitution.

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, if you and I are right about this, that means that document hasn’t only a past and a development, but a future. To take the document even now, with all the amendments that have been added, as revolution every second or third generation. We don’t have to have it. Every one of these amendments is a revolution. Every one of the amendments has changed the course of life in this country. Turned it around.

BILL MOYERS: Mortimer, why do you think our ancestors felt they were justified in limiting suffrage to white males who were owners of property?

MORTIMER ADLER: The proposition that all men are created equal or, in my version in order to avoid the theological implications of the word ‘created’ , the proposition that all men are by nature equal, was not accepted—Jefferson wrote those words and Lincoln interpreted those words to be a pledge to the future, not a description of the way men thought at the time. the finished thing is wrong.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that the genius of the document and of the system is that it provides for a In the 18th century, the against human equality. Superior to the females. Superior to the blacks prevailing prejudices were The males thought they were – The whites thought they were The rich thought they were means of settling our disputes without resort to violence—

MORTIMER ADLER: No question about that.

BILL MOYERS: —even while we are changing radically—


BILL MOYERS: —the document by which we live.

MORTIMER ADLER: Absolutely. It is an extraordinary method of providing for lawful, political change. It is said of Jefferson that he recommended that we have a superior to the poor. You have to come down to the first quarter of the 20th—oh, a little beyond the first quarter of the 20th century to get democracy in existence. Meaning by that, only for one moment now, universal suffrage. And a democracy is constitutional government with universal suffrage, and I’d go something further, and securing all human rights, both political and economic. And I add that last clause, we don’t have democracy yet fully in this country.

MORTIMER ADLER: Talk about happiness now as a whole good life well lived. That’s an end. The means to pursuing it are being alive, being free, having certain economic goods, having certain other of your human needs fulfilled. Then, it seems to me, what we say is you have a right to all the things you need, you know, in the pursuit of happiness. But some of the things you need, you need virtue, as well, moral virtue, but that you get yourself. You don’t need government to give you moral virtue. But all the other things you need to pursue happiness can be within the power of government to help you get.

MALE STUDENT: My question, okay, and we differ here then. I agree that you need freedom and that you need life to pursue happiness, but I don’t think it’s the place of government to go about handing out economic—


MALE STUDENT: Because who decides, right, who decides what a decent living is, what unfair competition is, a decent home, a good home, adequate protection, good education.

MORTIMER ADLER: You do understand how human beings can be deprived of the essentials of living eyen. When Monsignor Ryan, in that famous book of his, THE RIGHT TO A LIVING WAGE, explained that a living wage was the condition of a decent livelihood, he was talking about the line between those who are simply have-not’ s, have not the things that any human being needs. Now above that line there are all kinds of shades of gray. But there’s a line dividing the have’s and have-not’ s—

MALE STUDENT: My question then is how far, once you begin to legislate these things, how far are you willing to take it?

MORTIMER ADLER: I admit it’s difficult. We’re struggling with it. We haven’t solved it yet. I’m only saying…must we not face it?

MALE STUDENT: Oh, it’s certainly something that must be dealt with, I am—

FEMALE STUDENT: We ‘re trying to face it right now, but—

MORTIMER ADLER: Our forefathers did not. I don’t think our Founding Fathers, no fault of theirs, no one anywhere in the 18th century or much of the 19th, even thought of economic rights. That’s a 20th century — that’s an extraordinary advance in the 20th century.

MALE STUDENT: If you’re arguing for economic rights and you say that the have-not’ s have to be somehow taken care of by the haves, isn’t that an infringement—?

MORTIMER ADLER: By the state.

MALE STUDENT: Well, then you’re going to have more taxation for the—


MALE STUDENT: Isn’t that infringement on the individual rights of —

MORTIMER ADLER: No. After all, we invented income taxes in the 20th century. We invented inheritance—

MALE STUDENT: But taxation in the Constitution is solely for the maintenance of the state.

MORTIMER ADLER: We changed that in the 20th century. The22 main purpose of taxation originally was to support the services of government. We’ve gone beyond that. In fact, when you think of the large portion of the federal budget that is now spent, on the one hand, for common defense, on the other hand, for the entitlement programs, you see we’ve gone—we ‘re using the tax money to redistribute wealth. We are doing that now, aren’t we? We are doing it, aren’t we?

MALE STUDENT: we are. But I guess if you interpret the Constitution as providing a grounds for that, there seems to be, ultimately, individuals whose rights seem somehow infringed upon. When you demand of a person money to support another citizen instead of to support the government which supports him—

MORTIMER ADLER: Rights of property are not inviolable .The common good—they can be invaded if the common good must be served.

MALE STUDENT: would you disagree then, Mr. Adler, with the proposition that government governs best which governs least?

MORTIMER ADLER: I think Jefferson was wrong in saying that that government governs best which governs least. I think the opposite opinion is equally wrong, that

MALE STUDENT: See, you ‘re talking about securing all human rights and there are some things that I don’t think can be legislated.

MORTIMER ADLER: Doesn’t the Declaration say that government should be instituted to secure these rights? Now the only question is what these rights are, but it’s securing these rights, these human rights. Now the only question is, do human rights include economic rights as well as political rights? I say yes to that, some people say no. But if our human rights are both economic and political, and a just government secures all human rights, it should secure economic as well as political.

MALE STUDENT: Sure, if human rights—if you include economic—if you think of economic goods as rights, then, of course, it belongs .

MORTIMER ADLER: Would you tell me why you—just give me one more moment—will you tell me why you don’t include economic goods as rights?

MALE STUDENT: I believe in equality of opportunity

MORTIMER ADLER: I do, too. Government governs best which governs most. I think the only true statement is that government governs best which governs most justly, which secures all human

MALE STUDENT: That everyone should have opportunity to make the best of— the ‘ rights, both political and economic.

MALE STUDENT: See, I’m not sure that’s within the realm of government to do.

MORTIMER ADLER: It isn’t? To govern justly?

MORTIMER ADLER: But I also believe, in addition to equality of opportunity, in equality of conditions . And de Tocqueville—

MALE STUDENT: See— ahead. What do you want to say now?

MORTIMER ADLER: You read de Tocqueville, didn’t you?


MORTIMER ADLER: And de Tocqueville says democracy consists—democracy, in the broad sense, consists in the universal equality of conditions . That means political conditions and economic conditions.

MALE STUDENT: I’m certainly not in favor of the way labor conditions were and what was necessary in the 18th century. I do—

MORTIMER ADLER:You think we ‘ve improved on that?

MALE STUDENT: I think we ‘ve improved on that, yeah, I think that that’s a positive change.

MALE STUDENT: Yes, see, I don’t think that the framers of the Constitution intended to go nearly that far.

MORTIMER ADLER: I agree with you, but we—I didn’t say the framers did. I’m saying in the long 200 year period in which this Constitution has evolved and developed, we have changed from what the framers had in mind, no question about it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any amendments.

MALE STUDENT: Then that is a change I don’t approve of, of that particular change”

MORTIMER ADLER: You don’t approve that change. You ‘d like to stick to the 18th century notion of just political rights.

MALE STUDENT: Well, now don’t go making me say things that I don’t mean, right. I’m not—

MORTIMER ADLER: You just said that a moment ago.

MALE STUDENT: Well, I didn’t really.

MORTIMER ADLER: Alright, I’ll let you take it back. Go ahead. What do you want to say now?

MALE STUDENT: You might posit that the way isn’t through the Constitution to do that thing. It’s more social and it may be in the labor unions and—Is that what you would posit?

MORTIMER ADLER: No. So far in the 20th century the motion toward the recognition of economic rights—and I’m going to sum them all up by saying the right to a decent livelihood—all human beings have that right secured if they’re going to lead decent human lives—that we’ve done that by positive legislation, not by constitutional amendment. Lincoln said, The government should do for the people only what the people, individually and collectively, cannot do for themselves If the people, collectively or individually, could do this by themselves, you wouldn’t have the government doing it. When they don’t do it by themselves, then the government steps in and does it.

MALE STUDENT: Well, he also says, when he’s talking to the cooper Union, he says the means—the way to that sort of freedom that you ‘re talking about, economic freedom, is through industrialization.


MALE STUDENT: Not through welfare programs .

MORTIMER ADLER: That’s in the 1860’s. Things have changed since then.

MALE STUDENT: Right, but I still think that in some way the welfare state is at odds to individual liberties .


MALE STUDENT: So you’re saying that we exist for the state?

MORTIMER ADLER: No, I’m not hardly saying that. I’m saying our property is not entirely free at our disposal.

MALE STUDENT: Sure, we need to maintain the government. I mean, I can’t take issue with that.

MORTIMER ADLER: Not only maintain the government, but serve the common good.

MALE STUDENT: Individual rights. The rights of property of those who are being taxed for the economic— what

MALE STUDENT: See, it’s the implementation. It’s some of that tax money is being used for. The

MALE STUDENT: But if the government doesn’t ensure domestic tranquility and if we say the peasants revolt, you’re going to have a problem. I mean, there taxes true. are necessary to maintain the government, it’s

MORTIMER ADLER: And more than that. To serve the general are people of us here that wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for government financial programs

STUDENTS:: Right, right.

MORTIMER ADLER: You think the income tax is unjust, it’s an invasion of property. I’m taking your property away, I’m taxing you not for the services of government. Believe me, the income tax and the inheritance tax is a redistributive tax. You think that’s unjust?

MALE STUDENT: I’m not sure. But I know people who do.

MORTIMER ADLER: I would say it’s not unjust. We hold our property under the limitation that we must serve the common good in holding it.

MALE STUDENT: So you’re saying we exist for the state.

MORTIMER ADLER: No, I’m not hardly saying that. I’m saying our property is not entirely free at our disposal.

MALE STUDENT: Sure, we need to maintain the government. I mean, I can’t take issue with that.

MORTIMER ADLER: And more than that. To serve the general welfare, promote the general welfare.

MALE STUDENT: Okay, and aren’t we diverged in how we think the general welfare should be served?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, my only question is, 1 mean, I’m going to leave it at this because—but I want you to think about it, if we tax to promote the general welfare and if the general welfare is fundamentally economic in character or certainly involves economic matter, then it’s perfectly alright to tax in order to promote the economic welfare of the people of this country. That there should be no economic have-not’s in serious deprivation.

BILL MOYERS: So bow well do you think the Constitution is serving those ideals of the Preamble? “Establish justice—”

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, I think it has done well about securing the blessings of liberty—1 mean, not perfectly ever. But I’d say that it does very well. I think it has done pretty well with respect to ensuring domestic tranquility . We spent a lot of money and I think we ‘re doing pretty well on promoting the common defense . I think we ‘re doing very much better than we ever did in the past on the general welfare . Justice, I think, is still not well enough done. Because, I think, I may be alone in thinking this, but I think that economic rights are just as basic to human rights as political rights and we haven’t fully and finally secured them by several enactments.

BILL MOYERS: And the founders were hardly concerned at all with economic rights.

MORTIMER ADLER: Had no thought of—if you asked anybody, they would have said they didn’t exist.

BILL MOYERS: But where do you find in the Constitution the wellspring for economic rights? I can see the political—

MORTIMER ADLER: It is not in the Constitution, unless it is there implicitly in the “general welfare” clause.


MORTIMER ADLER: None of—but in the Preamble, oh no. By interpreting the Preamble to mean—if I read the Preamble to promote the general-in parenthesis, economic-welfare, it would be there. I would say, my reading of the Preamble is such that I think no proper 29 meaning can be given to the phrase general welfare with adding the word economic. Otherwise, it’s redundant, overlaps the other things. The general welfare includes all the others if you don’t make it narrowly economic.

BILL MOYERS: But the response from people is going to be that the Constitution is about political rights, the nature of government, the nature of citizenship, not economic rights, the need of consumers .

MORTIMER ADLER: Section 8 of Article 1 is economic as well as political. Many things are—and secondly, in the 20th century we have become a welfare state with welfare legislation. And I think that is the proper interpretation of the general welfare clause. We are promoting the general welfare in the 20th century as we never did in the 19th or 18th.

BILL MOYERS: What about that phrase in the Preamble, to “provide for the common defense?” What do you think was in the minds of the framers when they talked about a standing army?

MORTIMER ADLER: Oh, they meant by a standing army a very small navy, a small standing army. They had no vision at all of the kind of world in which we live, in which—I mean, the notion of an aerial assault upon our dominions, our domain, was inconceivable to them.

BILL MOYERS: What was it Madison said, The liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs . They were afraid of a large army, weren’t they? Very skeptical of it.

MORTIMER ADLER: As a matter of fact, one of the crucial things is making the president, a civilian, the commander-in-chief of the army and navy. I mean, in this country, in no European country of the time was the kind of civilian control of the military in existence .

BILL MOYERS: Look at our present military establishment, huge in size and arsenal, globally dispersed, biting deep into the nation’s budget, thoroughly embedded into the industrial, technological side of our society, cloaked in secrecy so often. And deeply affecting both domestic and foreign affairs. Do the precautions written into that Constitution by those Founding Fathers prevail today?

MORTIMER ADLER: No. The Constitution, I think, provides for an adequate handling of the issues and problems of domestic policy. It provided for the operation of foreign policy in a world totally different from ours, with a small army and navy and no need for secret diplomacy. In fact, obviously, diplomats, our ambassadors had to act on their own. They couldn’t act on instructions from Washington. There was no way to do that. I think the Constitution is totally inadequate in the field of foreign policy for the world we live in today.

BILL MOYERS: Foreign policy, including the defense establishment? did not declare the war in Vietnam . I’m right about those things? You ‘re right about both those things.

BILL MOYERS: That’s right.

MORTIMER ADLER: We have deviated—after the Second World war that our operations in foreign policy have become more and more non-constitutional.

BILL MOYERS: Non-constitutional? Beyond the Constitution?

MORTIMER ADLER: unprepared for by the Constitution. Outside the scope of the Constitution.

BILL MOYERS: So are we sort of out there in dark waters?

MORTIMER ADLER: Yes. I think it’s a very—I mean, I can’t think of any more serious problem. The two most serious problems about this Constitution is, one, to so change it that it adequately controls the operation of foreign policy in a world in which secrecy and various quick decisions have to be made that Congress can’t make. I don’t know how to do that. You don’t want to weaken us in relation to adversaries that are not surely under the constraints of constitutional government.

MORTIMER ADLER: Oh, not just the defense. National Security Council—

BILL MOYERS: This whole huge octopus . The CIA, the

BILL MOYERS: No, but I suggest that we are more weakened by an executive branch out of control, operating in the dark, fighting wars with private armies in Central America and Africa and other places, than we are from whatever someone else can do to us.

MORTIMER ADLER: Yes. By the way, Congress declared the First World War and Congress declared the Second World

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, there’s two problems . One is in the War. Congress did not declare the War in Korea. Congress field of foreign policy. The other is, I think, making … democracy, itself, more secure. If I’m correct in saying that democracy is an infant, a fragile, feeble infant born in the last 50 years, we have a long way to go to make that a strong, sturdy adult. Democracy is very recent, indeed. Again, I hope I am not vilifying or criticizing my fellow Americans, but I think if you told a large number of Americans what constitutional democracy consisted in, they would not be for it.

BILL MOYERS: It would be—

MORTIMER ADLER: Too radical for them. There was a time ten years ago when people in San Francisco were shown the Declaration of Independence and asked whether they would sign it and they said, “No.”

BILL MOYERS: Even though the ideal of democracy and the word democracy do not appear in the Preamble of the Constitution, we have a system in which democracy has—


BILL MOYERS: Emerged, and has been spread ever more widely. And yet, Mortimer, it’s only come every step of the way, was bitterly contested by the powers-that-be.

MORTIMER ADLER: And I think every step in the way ahead toward—

BILL MOYERS: Economic equality?

MORTIMER ADLER: to improved democracy. See, I think there are many things—in fact, in the last chapter of this book I made a list of questions. I didn’t answer them. Questions about what might have to be done to make democratic government work more perfectly than it does now. I think it’s not working perfectly. I think our citizens are not prepared to be citizens. I think the government has many hitches and failings that prevent it from operating democratically. There are four ways in which this present document now stands to be changed. One, by further amendments . Two, by congressional legislation. Three, by radical, new interpretations on the part of the Supreme Court, which could happen again and again. And four, the one I most fear and disapprove of or dislike, is calling a second Constitutional Convention. Because I don’t think we have the statesmen they had. I don’t think, with our large population, that we have the statesmen they had with the small population in 1787.

BILL MOYERS: So you think that a second Constitutional Convention would be chaos.

MORTIMER ADLER: I think so. In addition to which, that Constitutional Convention had several months with not one word leaking out, no TV cameras, no press, no public discussion. Not a thing happened until the document was completed and drafted and submitted to the people for their consideration.

BILL MOYERS: Madison would not even let his notes of the convention be published until after his death.

MORTIMER ADLER: Washington sat in the dais, chairman of the convention, never opened his mouth except on one occasion . When one member carelessly dropped his notes in a tavern and he publicly rebuked that member for breaching the secrecy of the convention.

BILL MOYERS: So we couldn’t do that on the six o’clock evening news.34

MORTIMER ADLER: No, we could not do it on the— a civil law is a very serious question. I think it should not be. Now suicide is a Christian sin because it’s a sin against God, not against the state.

BILL MOYERS: Seven o’clock news.

MORTIMER ADLER: That’s right. too.

FEMALE STUDENT: It’s a sin against the state,

MORTIMER ADLER: No, it isn’t. There are no sins—there

MORTIMER ADLER: Let’s go on to the next to the last of the clauses in the Preamble . We’re covering the Preamble very well. Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. The question is, are we correct in saying that one should be free to do anything one pleases in the realm of one ‘s private conduct, where private means the actions taken, the freedom exercised, does not injure anybody else or the common good? And the law should regulate—limit our freedom by positive regulation only when our actions either do or threaten to do the following: injure others or detract from the common good. Do you all agree to that, by the way? If you do, how does one draw the line between the private and the public? Remember last evening, I quoted St. Thomas on a very crucial matter. That civil legislation should not attempt to promote all virtues—all virtuous acts and prohibit all vicious acts. It should only invade the field of morality only insofar as the conduct affects others.

MALE STUDENT: For example, murder?

MORTIMER ADLER: Murder? Yes, it obviously affects others.

MALE STUDENT: What about suicide?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, that’s very different. Suicide is a are no sins against the state. Let’s suppose for the moment that suicide is a religiously prohibited act. Should the state also prohibit it? That’s another question.

FEMALE STUDENT: No, the last sentence of Article 6 in the Constitution also the first sentence of the First Amendment says that it shouldn’t be religious.

MORTIMER ADLER: That’s precisely the point. In other words, I think it is wrong to legislate any moral act or to, shall I say, command a moral act or prohibit an immoral act if that moral act and immoral act do not affect others of the common good.

MALE STUDENT: Less than that, why can’t I drink before I’m 21?

MORTIMER ADLER: Answer your own question. Do you think the legislation that, shall I say, limits the consumption of alcohol to those who ‘ve reached the age of consent or some other age is an unjust law? And, if so, why?

MALE STUDENT: Well, I don’t think that’s to my point. I think to my point would be to ask, is that a moral law? And it seems that the legislature has very interesting case, you see a sin. Whether or not that sin-Suicide is regarded as should be prohibited by determined that my—there’ s something within me that cannot—

FEMALE STUDENT: Statistics … It’s not a matter of moral law, it’s a matter of common law, of common good. And you cannot make laws based on moral law because you haven’ t distinguished between common good, what’s good for all men and what is good for one man and not for another. And that is when morality begins to have its effect.

MALE STUDENT: So understand where the problem lies. Take, for instance, some fundamentalist. Some laws that we would call moral, to them they’re going to argue, and I don’t agree with this, but they’re going to argue that those laws are not questions of morality, that certain things endanger their children. And that they are protecting the common good, that by banning certain books, which is in my opinion something that should never be done, but they’re going to say it’s something that endangers their children, the mere existence of these books in the society. So that there’s a problem.

MORTIMER ADLER: It’s the great problem, I think first raised by John Stuart Mill in his great essay, “On Liberty”, about the line to be drawn between conduct and liberty in the sphere of conduct which is strictly private. Where private means “affects me and me alone and injures no one else and in no way detracts from the common, public good.”

BILL MOYERS: And you would include sexual acts performed in private by consenting adults.

MORTIMER ADLER: Right, right. I would include all acts that have no victims. The phrase is—there can’t be any crimes without victims. And true crime must have a victim. Acts that have no victims are not crimes. We have made criminal many acts that have no victims.

BILL MOYERS: Many people consider them sinful or unvirtuous .

MORTIMER ADLER: They are that, I have no quarrel with them on that. There are many sinful acts, many unvirtuous acts, many immoral acts that cannot be legislatively prohibited.

BILL MOYERS: You mean there are some places that, by church doctrine are sinful, where the state cannot go and say, “This is wrong.” The state can’t say it.

MORTIMER ADLER: The church can say it and your moral counselor can say, “That’s an immoral act. Don’t do it.” But it cannot be prohibited by law because civil law, the law of the state, must regulate human conduct only insofar as that conduct affects the public interest.

MORTIMER ADLER: You’ve read the Meno, haven’t you? And in the Meno, Plato, I think more clearly than anybody else, shows why no one can, shall I say, form the moral character of anybody else. The conclusion of the Meno is that virtue cannot be taught, cannot be instilled.

MALE STUDENT: Right, but you can have—you can be raised…

MORTIMER ADLER: Hold it. If that’s the case, then government can’t do it, obviously, any more than teachers can, any more than parents can. All I’m saying is the law, the law of the state, civil law, should go no further in regulating human conduct, even in the sphere of morality or of sin and vice, beyond what affects the good of others.

MALE STUDENT: But that’s not really simple, is it? It seems as if we have that line again between where we call something moral and where we decide that it has to do with the common good because, I mean; with Mr. Virgil’ s example of drinking, we can argue that it’s dangerous to the community because people under 21 tend to drink and drive. In the case of smoking, we can say that secondary smoke is dangerous to others, therefore, it affects people. So I still think that it’s difficult to draw a line between the moral or, you know, our moral attitude which affects no one else, and maybe a moral.

BILL MOYERS: The state has no basis regulating private morality?

MORTIMER ADLER: Not at all. Not the least.

BILL MOYERS: Who does?

MORTIMER ADLER: The church, moral preceptors , but not the state. The state is concerned with the good of individuals and the common good, as affected by the actions of others.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t it the consensus of society that decides what is right and wrong? That decides the moral standards attitude which does affect others.

FEMALE STUDENT: Especially because the moral law and, to a certain extent, the common law—if you need the arena of conflict and choice, if you deprive people of their choice by regulating everything that’s good for them, how do they have the liberty of mind to cultivate true moral virtue?

MORTIMER ADLER: I’m not denying that sodomy is wrong. not denying that rape is wrong and that rape—the difference between sodomy and rape is that rape is injury to a non-consenting person.

BILL MOYERS: So it’s a crime.

MORTIMER ADLER: A crime, yes. Any sexual act between consenting persons can’t be a crime because no one is injured. I’m-

MORTIMER ADLER: You ‘re all on the point and we have an advantage today because you ‘ve all been reading the same thing, we recognize what the sphere of moral conduct is. We recognize the sphere—the importance of virtue in human life, leading a good life. And the main point still is, there must be a way of drawing a line between those of our acts which are truly private, moral or immoral, moral or immoral, but truly private in the sense that they affect no one else nor the common good of the community. In that sphere of action, no government regulation or law should be made consenting persons can’t be a crime because no one is injured.

BILL MOYERS: You say in the opening of WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS, that the citizens of this country, young and old, have misconceived, misconceived the role of the citizen in America.

MORTIMER ADLER: I think there’s no question about it.

BILL MOYERS: How is that? What do you mean?

MORTIMER ADLER: I know. I don’t have any hope for the present generation. I’m hoping for the future. I’m hoping that we can change the schools, at least in this respect. That we do something that really turns out in the next generation and after that young men and women who understand, not only the ideas and ideals, but who feel the moral obligation to uphold them.

BILL MOYERS: But if we do understand them, will that increase the world’s stock of justice?

MORTIMER ADLER: Yes, I think, I’ll put it this way. If the young really understood those two propositions about all men being by nature equal and by nature, inherent in their nature, are certain unalienable human rights. And that justice consists in securing those rights and treating equals equally, I think the next generation might be inclined to do justice more than the last generation. Yes, I do believe that.

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, I mean by that that most Americans, young and old, think of the government as existing in the persons who occupy offices in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere in the federal government’s office buildings. That is not the government. We, the people. The citizens of a constitutional government, whether it be a democracy or not, whoever the citizens, are the ruling class. As Lincoln said, the office holders are the servants of the people. The people, the citizens, are the permanent and primary rulers, principal rulers. The office holders are the transient and instrumental rulers. They rule as our representatives.

BILL MOYERS: What would we do differently if we acted this way?

MORTIMER ADLER: I think we would be more responsible . We think we perform our duties as citizens, most of us don’t even do that, a large number of people don’t even go to the polls on Election Day. I would like to suggest that, just as every true Christian, I take Christianity merely as an example, should spend some portion of the time every week in reading Holy Scripture and contemplating God, put it that way, so every citizen should spend some portion of his time every week reading the secular testament, which are these documents, which are political sacred scripture, and contemplating the Constitution and taking—I’ d almost say it’s not only the President of the United States who should take an Oath of Loyalty to the Constitution to pledge himself to defend and uphold it, every citizen should do that once a week. Once a week and be reminded of what his duties as a citizen are. And he can only do that if he understands all this, as they don’t understand it now.

BILL MOYERS: It’s a big task.

This transcript was entered on May 20, 2015.

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