Friday, February 15, 2013

Founder's Follies III: Washington and Madison

This is the third entry in Chredon's analysis of where the Founders went wrong. See previous issues for background on the issues discussed here.

Things just weren’t working.

That pretty much sums up George Washington’s view of life in the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Washington had retired after the Revolutionary War, taking no official position in the Virginia government and no position in the United States under the Articles. With the Army disbanded after the victory at Yorktown, Washington was suddenly without a job - which was fine with him. The Father of Our Country was happy to return to Mount Vernon and spend "the remainder of life in a state of undisturbed repose,” as he wrote to the States in his resignation letter. He was hopeful “of not taking any share in public business hereafter,” and had hopes “of quietly enjoying in private life, after all the toils of War, the benefits of a wise and liberal Government.”

But Washington goes on to issue a warning to the States. In fact, Washington’s Circular Letter of June 18, 1783 is an astounding premonition of the potential pitfalls the USA will soon encounter, as I outlined in Issue II.

The States refusing to honor the resolutions passed by Congress:

“That there must be a faithfull and pointed compliance on the part of every State, with the late proposals and demands of Congress, or the most fatal consequences will ensue… It is only in our united Character as an Empire, that our Independence is acknowledged, that our power can be regarded, or our Credit supported among Foreign Nations. The Treaties of the European Powers with the United States of America, will have no validity on a dissolution of the Union. We shall be left nearly in a state of Nature, or we may find by our own unhappy experience, that there is a natural and necessary progression, from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of Tyranny; and that arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of Liberty abused to licentiousness.”

The lack of any real Federal authority:

“That it is indispensable to the happiness of the individual States, that there should be lodged somewhere, a Supreme Power to regulate and govern the general concerns of the Confederated Republic, without which the Union cannot be of long duration.”

The unpaid debts and obligations to veterans that led to Shays’ Rebellion:

“Let us then as a Nation be just, let us fulfil the public Contracts, which Congress had undoubtedly a right to make for the purpose of carrying on the War, with the same good faith we suppose ourselves bound to perform our private engagements… In what part of the Continent shall we find any Man, or body of Men, who would not blush to stand up and propose measures, purposely calculated to rob the Soldier of his Stipend, and the Public Creditor of his due? and were it possible that such a flagrant instance of Injustice could ever happen, would it not excite the general indignation, and tend to bring down, upon the Authors of such measures, the aggravated vengeance of Heaven?”

The lack of a standing Army, or even a regular Militia, to defend the nation:

“As there can be little doubt but Congress will recommend a proper Peace Establishment for the United States, in which a due attention will be paid to the importance of placing the Militia of the Union upon a regular and respectable footing.”

Having spent nine years in service to the nation, Washington was ready to issue his warning to the nation and retire from the public eye for the remainder of his days. But what he saw over the ensuing four years was more than he could stand. When he saw the nation that he and his troops had fought to defend, the price of the blood they had shed, the limbs they had lost, the husbands and fathers who never returned home, and then the casual way in which the new Keepers of this nation tossed aside all idea of cooperation, he was appalled. No other cause could have pulled him from retirement. For George Washington, I think the Philadelphia Convention was the last battle of the Revolutionary War. He had saved the United States from Britain. But in 1787, he had to abandon his plans of retirement in order to save it from itself.

There is little doubt in the minds of historians that George Washington was the only man in all the United States who had the respect and support to convince the states that they had to give up some of their power in order to secure lasting peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, while Washington was a great man and decent General, he knew very little about government. So while he was the only person who could have possibly led the Philadelphia Convention, he was totally unsuited to be the architect of a new government.

The architect, therefore, was fellow Virginian James Madison.

Madison was an unlikely statesman. He was not a powerful speaker. He was not physically impressive. But he was a protege and favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had promoted Madison for acceptance in the Continental Congress during the War, and in the Virginia House of Delegates after it. Madison was known to be a behind-the-scenes consensus-builder. Lacking the ability to persuade large groups of men at once, he worked diligently to convince them one at a time.

His experience in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served from 1784 to 1786, was very enlightening. He saw the leaders of the new Virginia state government engage in cronyism, in handing out state money to favored supporters, in enriching themselves with public money, in ignoring the requests of the United States Congress, and in repeated attempts to solve their own financial woes by extracting money from other states' commerce. And if reports were true (and they were), the Virginia government was no worse than the others. He saw the new nations that so many had fought so hard to bring to birth risking destruction from what he called "an excess of Democracy."

But Madison was also a flawed messenger. He had advocated for a strong central government long before the Philadelphia Convention, going so far as to advocate for the total dismissal of state governments and all power to be held at the Federal level. Both he and Washington were well-known advocates of a stronger central government - one that roused concern in those who feared a return to the monarchy. Madison had also been fairly well duped by French diplomats in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and so his judgment was called into question.

Thomas Jefferson had sent Madison numerous books on every conceivable form of government ever enacted in Europe, and Madison pored over them constantly in designing the US system. Thus, Madison arrived in Philadelphia with a plan already in mind. While he waited for the rest of the delegates to arrive, he penned his Virginia Plan and had it presented to the Convention by Governor Randolph of Virginia. The plan included a bicameral legislature, a federal executive, and a system of federal courts. It also had some fairly controversial provisions, particularly that the US government would have the power to negate any state law that contradicted a Federal law.

But there is one thing that the Virginia Plan does not do. It makes no mention of the specific powers that would be granted to the Federal government. Its first resolution merely states:
Resolved that the Articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected & enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution; namely, "common defense, security of liberty and general welfare."

The next Founder's Follies article will look at the plans presented to the Philadelphia Convention and examine how those plans were merged into our Constitution.

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