Sunday, February 10, 2013

Founder's Follies I: The Founders' World

This post is the first in a series by Chredon. The Founders’ Follies series will look at the evolution of the Constitution and its interpretation in light of what the Founding Fathers intended our nation to be, with a focus on where our current position deviates from the Founders’ plan, and how we got there

Imagine the scene. It’s the summer of 1787 and you are in Philadelphia, meeting daily with the great men who make up the Constitutional Convention. These men, all learned, wise, and dedicated to the creation of a single nation forged out of the ashes of the Revolutionary War and the failure of the Articles of Confederation are all in unison as they declare a new direction for our nation.

And if you believe that, I have got some beachfront property in Topeka to sell you.

Today, 225 years after the Philadelphia Convention, we look back and revere the Founders with the long lens of history. Any politician of any party or stripe will cloak themselves in the Founders’ mantle, trying desperately to prove that the Founders believed exactly as they do. We revere them as great statesmen, we place them on pedestals as the Patron Saints of America. But to understand the Constitution and how it came into being, it’s important to know who the Founders were and what they believed about the world they lived in and the nation they were shaping.

Despite the reverence we feel for them today, the Founders were not saints, nor were they endowed with any great education or wisdom beyond that of normal upper-class men of their day.  Certainly, some of the most famous men in US history were participants – George Washington chaired the Convention, and attendees included Ben Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Mason. But many of the delegates were uneducated or self-educated. Most were primarily farmers, though often very successful ones. And many of them would go on to hold positions in their state governments or the Federal government.

One common misconception about the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention is that they were drawn from the same group that signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But of the 55 delegates, only eight were also signers of the Declaration, four of whom were from Pennsylvania.

  • Roger Sherman, CT
  • George Read, DE
  • Elbridge Gerry, MA
  • Robert Morris, PA
  • Benjamin Franklin, PA
  • George Clymer, PA
  • James Wilson, PA
  • George Wythe, VA

Why did so few of the signers of the Declaration attend the Constitutional Convention? Some were busy elsewhere. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the US Ministers to England and France, respectively.  John Hancock was Governor of Massachusetts at the time, and Sam Adams was President of the Senate in that state.  In short, many of the men who had brought the United States out from British rule were busy running those states. But others had different reasons for not attending. Patrick Henry, one of the great architects of American independence, refused to attend because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." Rhode Island boycotted the Convention primarily because they were supporting their state on tariffs they imposed on all trade between New York and Boston. They had no interest in giving up their rights to tax interstate commerce.

The Signers of the Declaration were men of great idealism, steeped in the writings of Hobbes and Locke, with strong ideas about the relationship between the governed and the government. The Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were more practical, nuts-and-bolts men who were simply trying to take something that did not work well and make it work better.

Another myth is that once it was concluded, all of the delegates to the Convention supported the new Constitution. They did not.  Thirteen left the Convention rather than sign it, and three who were present refused to sign. Thus, only 39 of the 55 delegates did sign it, and none were fully supportive of all of its provisions. Many who signed it said that they would urge their states to refuse to ratify it until a Bill of Rights was attached.

But to understand the Constitution, one needs to understand the world in which it was enacted. Today, we see the United States as a single nation made from a composite of various areas that we call ‘states.’ But the word ‘state’ means ‘nation.’

We have all read, and in many cases memorized and repeated, the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
But you can be sure that Thomas Jefferson would not agree with Lincoln’s immortal words. At the event of which Lincoln speaks, the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and the Signers agreed:

"That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."
Note that Jefferson uses the word State to describe not only the newly-independent colonies, but also Great Britain itself. Jefferson writes that this declaration is being made by Free and Independent States, not by a single government, and that each of those states individually would have all the rights and powers reserved to any other nation.

In 1787, the delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention came as representatives of twelve independent, self-governing nations. None of the attendees came to create a new, single nation that would supplant the thirteen states’ governments.

This distinction, strongly worded and held dear by the early leaders of the United States, is all but forgotten today. The Civil War put an end to the idea of America as a federation of independent nations and created a de facto single nation without benefit of de jure recognition. It is telling that in news articles published prior to 1860, the United States is always referred to in the plural (the United States are…) while after 1865, it is always the singular (the United States is…).

The convention itself grew out of a failed attempt in 1786 to make amendments to the Articles of Confederation. This meeting, the Annapolis Convention, was called primarily to address problems with trade and commerce under the Articles. But only five states sent delegates, so all that the Annapolis Convention achieved was to set a date and time for the Philadelphia Convention and broaden its mandate. The Philadelphia Convention was to include not only trade and commerce, but to examine the structural weaknesses inherent in the Articles and propose remedies.

This is the world in which the Constitutional Convention was held. This framework will guide me as I continue to write about the Founders’ Follies.

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