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Professor Wildenthal Lectures at the San Diego Public Library

June 18, 2012

Wildenthal Lecture
Wildenthal Lecture

Professor Bryan H. Wildenthal, who has volunteered to be the Project Scholar for the San Diego Public Library’s series “Searching for Democracy: A Public Conversation About the Constitution,” delivered the inaugural lecture in the series on Wednesday evening, June 13, in the Wangenheim Rare Book Room at the Central Library. Aimed at the general public as well as lawyers and scholars, this series of talks and events will focus on what the Constitution means for Americans.

Professor Wildenthal’s opening lecture was entitled “Whose Constitution?: Why Do Americans Care So Much About Our Fundamental Law?” and was followed by an extensive question-and-answer session with people in attendance.

Professor Wildenthal started out discussing what a “constitution” is, noting that it can be viewed as a basic kind of social contract designed to structure an entire society. He noted that different groups and generations of Americans, over the 220 years since the Founding of the Republic and the ratification of the Constitution, have embraced very different ideas about what the Constitution stands for. For example, he noted that Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the Constitution (not necessarily shared by most other Founding Fathers) focused on preserving the federal-state balance and also the institution of slavery, while also embracing a secular concept of separation of church and state. The Constitution of Frederick Douglass, the escaped African American slave who became a great orator and civic leader before and after the Civil War, believed in a Constitution of equal rights and universal freedom. Justice Stephen J. Field, the first Supreme Court Justice from California, who served from 1863 to 1897, advocated a laissez-faire vision of the Constitution with maximal protection for private property and contract rights. The “Roosevelt Constitution,” building on the ideas of both Progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) and New Deal Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45), who were cousins, emphasized governmental reform, expanding social welfare programs, and a strong national government, both domestically and in asserting American power on the global stage. In more recent times, the so-called “Tea Party” movement among some conservative Republicans has advocated a return to a far more limited federal government and more stringent protections for private property rights (as Justice Field once advocated). But the Constitution we live under today could largely be described as “Kennedy’s Constitution”—not President John F. Kennedy or Senator Ted Kennedy, but rather Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, who has become the decisive swing vote on issues ranging from personal liberty to the powers of the federal government (as in the pending health care case).

Photos by Pushpa T. Lala