Development of the American Constitution -- Terms

Some Conceptual Terminology

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  • constitutional law: the written Constitution and court interpretations in cases
  • constitutional canon: (the most important cases; landmark statutes; Declaration?
  • unwritten constitution: (partially) shared understandings and norms that function like written constitutional provisions. Examples:
    • when a warrant is required for police search
    • how "advice and consent" works
    • who can send U.S. troops abroad and for what reasons
    • when a president is supposed to make a public statement


  • change and elaboration; not necessarily tending toward perfection
  • may be accidental or intended
  • possibility of retrogression


  • We generally use this in the descriptive or sociological sense: existence of a widespread expectation that others will accept decisions or institutions as being authoritative and normatively acceptable, and expect reasonable people, both citizens and officials, to carry them out
  • (rather than the moral sense: satisfying criteria for normative acceptability, incurring obligation).
  • Sources of legitimacy:
    • prior consent to a system of decision making;
    • adherence to a set of widely accepted principles;
    • realizing the desirable consequences that will follow from a system of decision making;
    • public reasoning or democratic approval of a decision
  • Locke: legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed
  • Weber: sources of legitimacy: traditional, charismatic, or rational-legal


  • emphasis on individuals as autonomous moral agents
  • property rights and freedom of contract (possibly regulated)
  • extensive civil and political rights (possibly regulated)
  • government includes institutions and mechanisms that protect rights against violation by otherwise authoritative actors or groups (such as majorities in a democracy)
  • "liberal democracy"; liberalism without democracy; illiberal democracy (Mounk)

Republican values and principles

  • freedom as a primary value
  • liberalism: in the classic sense—individuals have inherent political, civil, and property rights
  • the rule of law
    • laws meet principles (often specified as effectiveness, reliability, publicity, clarity, stability) that fully control officials' actions: citizens can be coerced only by duly appointed government officials, and then only in keeping with the law
  • the existence of a common good or public interest
  • civic virtue, the qualities and participation of good citizen
    • government officials should be citizens demonstrating great civic virtue
    • vs. corruption: serving private interest at the expense of public interest
  • popular sovereignty

Democratic values and principles

  • equality under the law
  • political or economic equality generally
  • some degree of concern about the linkage between political equality and material welfare
  • universal eligibility to participate in government

Politics, political

alternative definitions we'll encounter:

  • authoritative social decisions implemented by the administrative and coercive capacity of the state
    • as opposed to individual action, smaller-group decisions, pairwise trading or contracting
  • oriented toward winning and holding office or marshaling support
    • as opposed to governing, administering, adjudicating, or carrying out principles
  • decisions by judges in pursuit of desired policy or material goals
    • as opposed to jurisprudence


two very different meanings, both sometimes used as a basis for legitimacy:

  • Applied to the federalists, JQ Adams, Henry Clay's political program, the Whig Party, and the Progressives of the early 1900s: placing an emphasis on government actions said to benefit the country as a whole, rather than leaving everything up to states and localities.
    • Abroad, this sort of nationalism might describe the goals of the French following the Revolution, and of the Italians following unification, to create a perception of french-ness or italian-ness based on common language, culture, and politics.
  • Applied to political movements emphasizing the solidarity of large-scale ethnic groups, often defined by a common language or "race": placing emphasis on the solidarity of a people springing from their common ancestry and their common, distinctive, superior culture.
    • Commonly applied to historical movements in Europe.
    • Controversially applied to modern anti-immigration politics in Europe, and to some American tendencies; sometimes, "ethno-nationalism".
    • (Oddly, no one seems to talk about the U.S. anti-immigrant movements of the 1800s as "nationalist.")

This page written by Randall Calvert ©2018