Spotlight Report: JMC Graduate Student Summer Institute

Spotlight Report: 2015 JMC Graduate Student Summer Institute on “Property, Power and the Rise of Atlantic Constitutions”

On July 28th, 2015, the Jack Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Missouri and the University of Pennsylvania, kicked off its second annual JMC Graduate Student Summer Institute in Philadelphia, PA. This ten-day, interdisciplinary event brought together nineteen graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from around the country in order to consider the topic of “Property, Power and the Rise of Atlantic Constitutions” with JMC Returning Fellows and a rotating slate of university faculty.

In the 18th-century Atlantic world, revolutionary thought crossed national, natural and cultural boundaries with unprecedented ease. New and refurbished ideas of right, property, trade and government often proved transformative (and sometimes destructive) as they traveled from time to time and place to place, resulting in a variety of governments constituted with a view to honoring liberal principles and aspirations. The 2015 JMC Graduate Student Summer Institute looked to this remarkable period in history, asking: What were some of the key ideas those various revolutions shared and what happened to them when they were applied in different contexts? Why did they turn out so differently in different times and places? What, in the end, did the various parties get right and wrong as they tried to build constitutional democracies in the late modern world? Summer Institute participants wrestled with these questions and more as they reflected on the intertwined narratives of property and power in the context of comparative constitutionalism.

Each day of the Summer Institute began with a lecture by a different faculty member in which he or she offered a unique interpretation of the theme, “Property, Power and the Rise of Atlantic Constitutions.” These presentations were directly followed by vigorous Q&A sessions, and later complemented by small group discussions, during which Summer Institute participants could address the specific themes of that day with each other, the speakers and JMC staff.

The first week of the Summer Institute began with a presentation by University of Pennsylvania Professor of Political Science Nancy Hirschmann, titled “British Antecedents: John Locke on Property.” In this session, Hirschmann drew out the influence of Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf on Locke’s philosophical approach to property before then posing the question whether we ought to understand “life and liberty” as kinds of property for Locke, or whether “life, liberty and property” are actually separate goods, each of primary importance. Next, Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University Jack Greene gave a lecture, “Before Blackstone: Innovative Constitutionalism in Early Modern Anglo-Colonial World,” in which he outlined a direct lineage between the colonial charters granted by the British to commercial interests and the American constitutions. Day Three of the Summer Institute featured Boston College Professor of Political Science Christopher Kelly, who discussed “Rousseau and the Illustrious Montesquieu.” Montesquieu is commonly recognized as the American founders’ major influence in matters of constitutional design, and what Kelly’s presentation brought to light were the ways in which Rousseau’s revisions of Montesquieu might help us to reflect on the nature of America’s own constitutionalism.  University of Missouri Professor of History Jeffrey Pasley closed out the first week of the Summer Institute with his presentation, “Popular Constitutionalism and Its Enemies in the Making of America’s Democratic Republic,” in which he argued for a more comprehensive understanding of constitutional interpretation that incorporates not only Supreme Court jurisprudence, but public opinion and popular sentiments as well. Citing examples of such “popular constitutionalism,” Pasley showed how the public can be seen to have played an important role in establishing limits on government power since the founding of the nation.

In Week Two, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania Rogers M. Smith picked up where Pasley left off with a discussion of “The U.S. Constitution and the Quest to Secure Rights.” Throughout his presentation, Smith sought to answer three primary questions: 1) Was the U.S. constitution historically intended to establish a political system in order to secure the rights of all people over time? 2) Should we, today, see that as the goal of the American constitutional system? and 3) If the answers are yes, what are those rights that ought to be protected, and which governmental policies are most likely to secure them? University of Virginia Harry F. Byrd Professor of Political Science James W. Ceaser followed up Smith with a discussion of “Foundations and American Politics.” In this talk, he presented the idea of “foundational concepts,” which he argued could be reduced to three types: 1) those that come from the philosophical principle of science or nature; 2) those that come from religion; and 3) those that come from history. But regardless of the form a foundational concept might take, Ceaser warned that the study of politics should never be entirely reduced to either ideas or interests. Next, Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center Wilfred McClay led a discussion on “Tocqueville and the Culture of Constitutionalism,” in which he explained de Tocqueville’s observations on America and counseled contemporary readers to understand these musings in light of de Tocqueville’s role as a comparativist, first and foremost. Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri Justin Dyer provided the final presentation of the Summer Institute: “Political Philosophy and the Declaration of Independence.” Focusing specifically on natural law theory, Dyer asked what the American founders thought of this intellectual tradition and wondered what they meant to accomplish by infusing it into the Declaration of Independence, ultimately concluding that natural law provided a rationale for government by consent, as well as the foundation for those inalienable rights (i.e. life, liberty, property) with which all human beings are endowed.

To round out this diverse set of presentations and the robust discussions that ensued, Summer Institute participants were also invited to take part in several faculty development workshops. These included a library and museum treasures tour at the American Philosophical Society (APS), as well as two professional workshops with academic publishers Lewis Bateman (Cambridge University Press) and Stephen M. Wrinn (University of Notre Dame Press).

Overall, this program amounted to an extended reflection on comparative constitutionalism – a look to the variety of views and political efforts to establish governments on liberal-revolutionary principles. As conversations about these topics bled from morning well into the evening, participants commented on their newly developed understandings of the relationships between property, power and constitutionalism. JMC Returning Fellow and 2015-16 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Columbia University Center for American Studies Luke Mayville later wrote in praise of the event: “There is an unfortunate scarcity of civic education in many American universities. The Jack Miller Center Summer Institutes help to fill the void by preparing and inspiring educators to explore the ideals and controversies that have shaped the American political tradition.” Graduate student participant Tae-Yeoun Keum (Harvard University) echoed these sentiments, pointing out that it is “often difficult in graduate school, especially during the later years of a PhD program, to experience the kinds of seminar discussions that made so many of us want to go to graduate school in the first place.” She then credited the JMC Summer Institute with giving her “the opportunity to get reacquainted with that energy that fills the room when a group of passionate scholars tries to make sense of a text together.”

For more information about JMC Summer Institutes, and to discover additional academic programming and faculty development opportunities available through the Jack Miller Center, please see here.


The JMC Graduate Student Summer Institute is conducted in partnership with the University of Missouri and the University of Pennsylvania. It is made possible with the generous support of the Kinder Foundation, a family foundation established by Rich and Nancy Kinder.