Constitution Day lecture analyzes ‘great American experiment’

Jefferson Powell discusses the Constitution as a hypothesis for the ‘Great American Experiment”

Alex Kinzer

Even after 227 years, we still wonder: has the great American experiment succeeded?

Professor H. Jefferson Powell of Duke University explored this question by highlighting the failures and successes of the constitution for Constitution Day lecture last Thursday.

Speaking before a packed audience in the Washington and Lee Law School’s Moot Court Room, Powell explained that the constitution was what launched the founding fathers’ American experiment.

“The original constitutional scientists had a hypothesis about how to structure political community so that it will be both free and enduring,” Powell said.

Today, he said, we are still testing that hypothesis.

But Powell outlined several signs that the American experiment is going well, from the perspective of the founding fathers. He pointed to America’s protection of free expression, the level of religious freedom experienced in America, and our peaceful acceptance of political change as sources of evidence.

At the same time, Powell said that gerrymandering, the growth of presidential war powers, and changes in the Supreme Court represent threats to the founders’ hypothesis and should be addressed through policy changes.

Many students were impressed by Powell’s ideas.

“I think what Professor Powell brought up was very relevant – that Constitution Day is not only for celebrating the basis of our country but also for reflecting on issues we still face as a nation and for evaluating the validity of our constitutional values as they stand today,” Claudia Kesala, ‘18, said. “I also thought that his definition of the constitution as an experiment of sorts was fascinating as I had never heard a viewpoint like that before.”

Although Constitution Day celebrations have been federally mandated for all schools receiving federal education funding since 2004, W&L faculty members maintain that Constitution Day is a valuable tradition at W&L.

“It’s just important to pause and recognize the importance and significance of the constitution as both an enduring document and as a basis for the political order,” said W&L Director of International Education Mark Rush, who also helped organize the event.

Assistant law professor Margaret Hu said she was excited to see what conversations Powell’s lecture may start on campus.

“Powell is one of the most well respected constitutional law scholars in the nation, and we are fortunate to have his decades of experience and extensive scholarly insight into the constitution,” she said.

Visiting professor Stephen Bragaw, who is teaching a course on Constitutional law this semester, said that Constitution Day reminds us of the value of history and legacy.

“Constitution Day has got to become part of the warp and fabric of things,” Bragaw said. “It can’t be something that just sits on the shelf, and then you forget why it’s important and it becomes easy to break.”