The Rise of the Constitution

This lecture explores how the Federal Constitution became a site of near unanimous public support in American life. Rana argues that the dominance and substantive meaning of constitutional veneration is actually 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. In the process, the talk raises a series of questions that have thus far been largely overlooked but that should be central to our conversations about the Constitution. 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? In engaging with these questions, Rana highlights how the Constitution became wedded to a very specific account of national purpose—one grounded in universal equality—which a century ago existed only at the margins of American politics. Indeed, 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 dissent.

Aziz Rana is a Professor of Law at Cornell Law School and a member of the fields of Government and History at Cornell University. Prior to joining the Cornell faculty, he was an Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fellow in Law at Yale. He received his A.B. summa cum laude from Harvard College and his J.D. from Yale Law School. He also earned a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard, where his dissertation was awarded the university’s Charles Sumner Prize. His research and teaching centers on American constitutional law and development, with a particular focus on how shifting notions of race, citizenship, and empire have shaped legal and political identity since the founding. His first book, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Harvard University Press, 2010) (paperback, 2014), situates the American experience within the global history of colonialism, exploring the intertwined relationship in American constitutional practice between internal accounts of freedom and external projects of power and expansion. He has written essays and op-eds for such venues as The New York Times, The Nation, Salon.com, CNN.com, Jacobin, and N+1. His recently published and forthcoming articles and chapter contributions are with Yale University Press, California Law Review, and Texas Law Review, among others.