Reagan had a more nuanced view of Constitution than many fellow conservatives
Conservatives revere two things above all else: The Constitution and Ronald Reagan. As we celebrate this Sunday’s 230th anniversary of the Constitution’s signing, self-described constitutional conservatives might want to know what their political idol thought about our founding document. They would find that his thought was more nuanced, and a bit less conservative, than is commonly believed.
Reagan revered the Constitution as much as any conservative. Even during what he called his “hemophiliac liberal” phase, he believed that America was a special country. Contemporaries recall that he studied the Constitution between takes on movie sets in 1941, and he was so taken with his trip to Mount Vernon that year that his then-wife, Jane Wyman, bought him a replica of George Washington’s writing desk as a present.
Indeed, his reverence for America’s dedication to human freedom was in part the cause for his turn to the right. In 1947, he became involved in a fight to prevent suspected communist infiltration in the movie industry. Scales fell from his eyes when a group he belonged to refused to endorse free enterprise and the American Constitution, with at least one famous musician saying he preferred the Soviet Constitution. Reagan remained a liberal and a Democrat for a decade after these incidents, but one can say that his political journey started then as he sought to think through for himself what realizing America’s founding promise through politics really entailed.
Reagan’s conservative turn was accompanied by the development of a consistent philosophy of constitutionalism. He believed that the document’s primary strength was the limitations it set upon government, limitations that ensured government could never remove an individual’s basic democratic rights. Judges, he believed, should interpret laws and the Constitution, not make them. With the able assistance of his longtime aide, lawyer, and eventual attorney general, Edwin Meese, Reagan helped to popularize what is today known as the “originalist” or “original intent” school of constitutional jurisprudence — that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of the intent its drafters held at the time it was drafted.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (Broadside Books). He discussed Reagan and the Constitution at Villanova University, Bartley 1011, at 4 p.m. Thursday. The lecture, free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Jack Miller Center for Teaching American Founding Principles and History and Villanova’s Ryan Center.