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The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy

The Rise of the Constitution

We The People

Friday, February 19, 2016
12:00 p.m.
Barat House, Boston College Law School

Featuring Aziz Rana, Professor, Cornell Law School

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about the event


In contemporary American politics, the Constitution enjoys widespread public support. However, this has not always been the case in national history. In fact, the dominance and substantive meaning of constitutional veneration is a relatively recent development -- the product of a series of interconnected political struggles between the American emergence onto the global stage with the Spanish-American War and World War I and the fallout of student and civil rights protest in the 1970s. The rise of modern constitutional veneration is ultimately a story of how the document became synonymous with a once highly embattled view of national identity and, through that process, effectively rose above meaningful political opposition.  

The lecture will explore how the Constitution rose above dissent and, as a result, what the implications have been for public life, such as: how did our current consensus emerge; to what degree did such acceptance depend on the active suppression of alternatives; and what are the implications of this consensus and its history for contemporary political discourse and institutional possibilities? All these questions seek to explain how the Constitution came to signify national purpose—one grounded in universal equality—which a century ago existed only at the margins of American politics. 

about the speakers


Aziz Rana

Aziz Rana is currently a Professor at Cornell Law School. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard and a JD from Yale. His research and teaching center on American constitutional law and political development, with a particular focus on how shifting notions of race, citizenship, and empire have shaped legal and political identity since the founding. His book, The Two Faces of American Freedom boldly reinterprets the American political tradition from the colonial period to modern times, placing issues of race relations, immigration, and presidentialism in the context of shifting notions of empire and citizenship. Today, while the U.S. enjoys tremendous military and economic power, citizens are increasingly insulated from everyday decision-making. This was not always the case. America, Aziz Rana argues, began as a settler society grounded in an ideal of freedom as the exercise of continuous self-rule—one that joined direct political participation with economic independence. However, this vision of freedom was politically bound to the subordination of marginalized groups, especially slaves, Native Americans, and women. These practices of liberty and exclusion were not separate currents, but rather two sides of the same coin. His current book manuscript explores the modern rise of constitutional veneration in the twentieth century -- especially against the backdrop of growing American global authority -- and how veneration has influenced the boundaries of popular politics. He has written essays and op-eds for such venues as The New York Times, The Nation,,, Jacobin, and N+1. He has recently published articles and chapter contributions (or has them forthcoming) with Yale University Press, California Law Review, and Texas Law Review among others.