By Alex Moreno
“What does it mean to be an American?” was the question posed by Hofstra Law Professor Eric Lane at the University Provost’s Lecture on Thursday, November 13 at the Student Activity Center Auditorium. “Everyone struggles with this question,” he continued. The lecture drew an older crowd of professors and academics in the political science and law fields. Lane, who earned an M.A. from Stony Brook in 1966, is currently a distinguished Professor of Public Law and Public Service at the nearby Hofstra School of Law, and coauthored the book, The Genius of America: How the Constitution saved the Country. His lecture, titled, “How the Constitutional Conscience Can Save Us From Ourselves,” dwelled on the struggle of the founding fathers to create a system. They wanted to create one that strove to keep naturally flawed human beings both free to act on their own wills and free from the tyranny that their instincts could reap upon them. Lane’s lecture focused on how this system filters down to us today. Lane opened, “The purpose of a human conscience is to save us [to distinguish] the idea of we from the idea of I.”
“Brutal” was the word that Lane used to describe the relations between the 13 colonies as of the late 18th century. The Articles of Confederation had failed to maintain unity, and Shay’s Rebellion was tearing apart the newly formed nation as it lay on the, “brink of chaotic dissipation,” as Lane stated. The idea that, “virtuous people can have [a] small government,” had failed in only 11 years time, when even George Washington himself admitted that, “I guess we had too high an opinion of human nature.” Lane explained how even as the revolution was underway, the colonies were hopelessly disorganized and won only by the off chance of French aid during a time when Washington’s troops were plighted, “without shoes,” and suffering hypothermia and disease. “All men love Power and have no capacity for self-restraint,” Alexander Hamilton claimed as deliberations unfolded to change the United States Constitution to a more functional system, a system that took better account of human faults and acted as a “living conscience.” The greatest challenge posed then was how to get 55 learned men, all with different agendas, a mixed garble of Federalists and Anti-Federalists all out for their own ends, to sit in a room and arrive at a form of government for which the people would actually vote. The result is what Lane sees as a system designed to uphold positive values of the revolution while still being realistic enough to take into account of human instinct and selfish nature, the, “sacred text of a secular society.”
Lane plots four values that surfaced from the Enlightenment and subsequently the American Revolution: freedom, representation, compromise and respect. “We failed…made mistakes for many years” said Lane when explaining how long it took for these tenets to apply to everyone. It took the Civil War, women’s suffrage and the labor movements of the late 19th century to correct the shortcomings of human interpretation of the rights slated by the Constitution. These struggles led to what Lane calls, “An American Renaissance,” that occurred the 20th century. But Lane cautioned that with the benefits, came the largest growth in federal government, and the discord of the 60s, breaking down the consensus. “We stopped trying to be citizens,” Lane stressed, and with that citizens stopped caring. Human nature remained the same self-interested instinct, but senators would not take the time of day to read the documents handed to them.
The system of checks and balances, the divisions of power established by the “sacred secular text,” and the “national conscience,” fail to function when the effort is lost. Eric Lane warned that events such as the Iraq War resolution, which was not a formal declaration of war, The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, which was never read by the senators who passed it within days, and the President of the United States claiming “Monarchial Prerogative” in defense of his extension of executive powers, are all signs of a rejection of the concept of “we” the nation, and a drop in citizen responsibility. Eric Lane pushed for citizens to exercise their civic duty to participate in one’s own governance. He leans to side of logic, a Madisonian take on “freedom isn’t free.” He ended with a cautionary note, a reminder of citizens’ responsibilities, and the importance of the American Constitution as a buffer to men or groups out to champion their own desires. He warned that we must act as a nation to preserve our stride. We may not be able to answer the question of what it means to be Americans, but, with heed, we can avoid falling into the same chaos in which we started. Lane urged the audience to remember that, “We are the longest running democracy of all time, and I don’t know about you guys, but long life doesn’t grant me immortality.”