Inaugural Chair Lecture with Professor Jay Sexton


What do a gold rush, the terrors of Jacobin extremism, and “Jingo Jim” Blaine have in common? As Kinder Institute Chair in Constitutional Democracy Jay Sexton pointed out in introducing his November 1 inaugural lecture, on one hand, they all represent various national origin points for that guardian of democracy, the secret ballot. More to the point of his talk, though, in tracing the advent of the secret ballot from Australia, to France, back to Australia by way of Victorian England, and finally to the 1884 U.S. presidential election, Prof. Sexton underscored just how borderless the narrative of U.S. constitutional democracy is and, in turn, how a more global approach is imperative to any comprehensive study of the nation’s political history.

Driving his subsequent discussion of why we need to re-visit the American past with the praxis of global constellation in mind were two primary questions—what does the U.S. founding look like from an international perspective; and when and why did U.S. constitutional democracy start mattering to the wider world? As for the former, Prof. Sexton made note of how establishing an international lens through which to view the founding requires accounting for the various geopolitical pressures that the new nation faced in the 1780s: resurgent British power; frontier hinterlands without compulsion for national loyalty; a plummeting post-war credit rating that needed servicing at precisely the moment when internal improvement projects called for an infusion of foreign capital. This pall of uncertainty in mind, the fact that the Constitution empowered the federal government to engage with foreign powers—through diplomatic channels, treaty making, and declarations of war—not only helped ease some of these pressures but also, and perhaps more importantly, inspired international recognition of the United States’ establishment of a responsible government: one which prioritized national interest while simultaneously discouraging the aggressive assertion of U.S. principles abroad. The Constitution, Prof. Sexton added, was but one of two founding documents penned in 1787 that resonated internationally. An innovative, outward-looking blueprint for how to sustainably expand into and incorporate new territories, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, with its carrot and stick policy of offering new territories the right to self-governance after a period of federal control, was later echoed in colonial reforms in Victorian England that accelerated the integration of South Africa, Canada, and Australia into the empire and ultimately helped secure Great Britain’s power to resist German force in the early- and mid-twentieth century.

Answering the question of when and why U.S. constitutional democracy began to matter to the wider world, Prof. Sexton went on to explain, likewise begins with confronting national weakness. As a global trend toward both democratization and emancipation emerged during the early 19th century, the United States’ moral standing rightfully diminished internationally, with critics at home and abroad decrying the nation’s toleration and expansion of slavery. But then Peoria happened; and then Gettysburg. As news of a seismic philosophical shift circulated, Lincoln’s rhetorical (and the Union’s physical) castigation of slavery as inconsistent with a government of, for, and by the people became a new touchstone for global approaches to understanding American politics. The reasons for this, Prof. Sexton noted in drawing his talk to a close, were numerous: Lincoln’s reaffirmation of the ideals of republican government came during a decade when nations around the globe were composing constitutions and themselves struggling with national formation; his near mythical status as a self-made autodidact taking on slavery and hereditary privilege personified an international desire to widen the life chances of the individual; and finally, tying into Prof. Sexton’s current research, Lincoln became a global celebrity in part because the Civil War unfolded during a historical moment of burgeoning communication networks: steam power and the telegraph were rising to prominence and the printing press was becoming more and more ubiquitous.

Taken together, he concluded, examining national formation in terms of foreign pressure and examining the Civil War in terms of a global moment of constitutional construction should ultimately lead us to re-think how we tend to periodize and insulate the Founders and, in turn, spur us to map out the many developmental traits that the U.S. shared with other colonial societies and states from the decade after the Revolution through the 1860s and beyond.

A video of Professor Sexton’s lecture can be found here.