Campus News

Constitution Day speaker details conflicts that created America’s identity

On Sept. 17, the School of Public and International Affairs and the American Founding Group hosted a Constitution Day observance that culminated with a lecture by Carol Berkin. 

Berkin’s lecture, “Born in Crisis: The Emergence in the 1790s of an American Identity,” highlights Constitution Day’s relevance by illuminating how the Constitution guided the U.S. through conflicts in the past, just as it guides the country today. By outlining the first four American crises, all of which happened after the Constitution was signed, Berkin argued that the Constitution provided the framework for a nation, but it was the conflicts afterward that created an American identity.

Berkin said that people often believe that once the Constitution was signed, America instantly had the money, power and legitimacy of an established nation. 

However, Berkin said, “It is a deeper appreciation of the contingency, the uncertainty and the sheer fragility of our grand experiment in nation-building that in the beginning I hope to create and re-create in my book
A Sovereign People. 

During the 1790s, there were four major crises: the Whiskey Rebellion, the Genet Affair, the XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War with France. Berkin discussed how the four conflicts brought 13 sovereign nations together to call themselves a union.

“Each [conflict] posed a unique challenge either to the authority of the federal government itself or to American sovereignty and independence from foreign control or to the legitimacy of the Constitution itself,” she said.

Berkin’s work also is a reminder of the power and charisma of the executive branch. According to her, the executive branch isn’t inherently compelling but rather it depends on the president for charm. She explained this by outlining how George Washington’s skill and composure during the Genet Affair was what first brought influence to the executive branch.

Berkin has won numerous awards for her research in American history and women’s roles in early Colonial history. She’s contributed to the History Channel, PBS and television documentaries.