Saturday, March 23, 2013

Founder's Follies Issue IX: Ratification Rhetoric

This is the ninth installment of Chredon's analysis of the making of the Constitution, and where the Founders went wrong. For background, see the previous issues:

Issue I: The Founders' World - Historical context of the Constitution
Issue II: The Confederate Period - The failure of the Articles of Confederation
Issue III: Washington and Madison - The Father of our Country and the Father of the Constitution
Issue IV: The Constitutional Convention - The Primary Issues at Philadelphia Convention

Other Topics of Discussion:

Issue V: Bobbing for Senators - Was the Seventeenth Amendment Really a Good Idea?
Issue VI: The Two-Party System - Wise Creation, or Dismal Unintended Consequence?
Issue VII: Reverse Democracy - Should Representatives Choose their Voters?
Issue VIII: Drawing the Line - Alternatives to Partisan Redistricting

I'm going to take a break from issues for a moment to introduce you to some important players who will be entering future Founder's Follies posts - the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. I am introducing them now because I plan to quote them in the future to give historical perspectives on the Constitution from the viewpoints of the men who had to decide whether to accept it. 

The Fight and the Aftermath

After months of discussion and debate by some of the finest minds in the nation, we finally had a Constitution for the United States of America. It was a beautiful framework for a republican government, built on democratic ideals of freedom and personal liberty. Certainly, everyone accepted it right away.

But, really, no, they didn't.

The Philadelphia Convention ended debate and passed the Constitution on September 7, 1787. It was forwarded to the US Congress (the one running under the Articles of Confederation) to be passed and sent to the states for ratification. 

This set off a firestorm of political writing not seen since the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Powerful men, many delegates of the Constitutional Convention, many state Governors, and many wealthy landowners began to write and publish papers either in support of ratification, or opposing ratification, or demanding changes to the document before they would support ratification. Those who supported ratification were called Federalists, and those who opposed it called themselves Patriots, though they are commonly referred to today as Anti-Federalists.

Newspapers and publishers spent months printing articles from these two camps, often under assumed names (though we now know who they were.) 

Of course, the Constitution was eventually ratified by all the states. But even after it was, Federalists and Anti-Federalists continued to fight over whether to expand or restrict the power of the new Federal government. They eventually morphed into the first two political parties in the United States: the Federalists, headed by John Adams, and the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson. Though neither Adams nor Jefferson were present for the Philadelphia Convention, they both had strong ideas about the powers that should be given to the Federal Government.

The fight over the powers to be given to the Federal government continued unabated, and still continues to this day. But for our purposes, we will take a look at some of the most influential Federalists and Anti-Federalists of the time, in order to understand the attitudes and ideas that shaped the nation in its earliest days.

The Federalists

The three best-known Federalists are John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. These three wrote the most comprehensive series of newspaper articles in support of the new Constitution. Published in the New York Independent Journal and other New York papers, and often re-published in other newspapers outside of New York. these works became collectively known as The Federalist Papers, or simply, The Federalist. 

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was the mastermind behind the plan, and wrote the first issue before inviting Jay and Madison to be his collaborators. The first issue was published on October 27, 1787, barely a month after the end of the Philadelphia Convention. Still, many Anti-Federalists had already begun to publish attacks on the new Constitution, and Hamilton knew that a thorough defense of the new government would be necessary to secure its passage in the key state of New York.

New York had sent three delegates to the Philadelphia Convention but Hamilton is the only one who stayed until the end. The other two, John Lansing and Robert Yates, returned to New York on July 10, 1787 because they opposed the strong Federal government being considered. With those two opposing ratification, Hamilton believed that it would be difficult to gain approval for the Constitution in New York. Given that New York was the seat of the government in 1787, having that state refuse the Constitution would have been a signal to many other states that the new governmental structure was unacceptable. If New York rejected it, other states would follow.
James Madison

Hamilton also knew that they had to act quickly. Some states might reject the new Constitution before the public debate could even get underway. He recruited James Madison and John Jay, both of whom were in New York. Jay was the Confederation's Secretary of Foreign Affairs (equivalent to our current Secretary of State) while Madison was one of Virginia's delegates to the Confederation Congress. Writing under the pseudonym Publius, they published seventy-seven Papers in 160 days between October 27, 1787 and April 4, 1788, a pace of about three per week. This feat is all the more impressive when you consider that Jay grew ill and only wrote five.

John Jay
There were Federalist writers in other states as well. James Wilson and Benjamin Franklin wrote and spoke in support of the Constitution in Pennsylvania. Wilson, in fact, presented one of the first public speeches in support of the Constitution within a month of its passage. His speech to the Pennsylvania Assembly was printed and widely distributed, and became the text to which most Anti-Federalists referred when attacking the Constitution. 

Perhaps most important of all, George Washington was in favor of the Constitution, and Washington was the most widely-respected man in the entire United States. Virginia being the most populous state, Washington's support of the new Constitution was vital to its passage there. Washington sent copies of the new Constitution to the the three most recent governor's of Virginia, urging their support. He spent many of the days between its passage and its ratification writing letters to important men all over the United States. But when the time came for debate in the Virginia legislature to approve or reject the Constitution, Washington did not attend. He left the debate in support of the Constitution in the hands of James Madison, who returned to Virginia to defend it. In his letters, Washington admitted that he did not consider the Constitution a perfect document, but he had confidence that it would be amended quickly should it show any shortcomings.

The Anti-Federalists

There is a common misconception that the Federalists were mainly in the north, Anti-Federalists in the south. This is not true, and is probably a projection of the attitudes of our own times onto history. Anti-Federalists were all over the nation. 

Robert Yates
One of the most prolific ones was Robert Yates, a New York judge who had been one of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention. A native of Albany, Yates was a member of the New York provisional governments during the Revolution. He was an early and vocal critic of the Stamp Acts, and while he did not serve in the army, his participation in the Committee of Correspondence helped to secure American independence. He was one of the men who drafted the for Constitution for the state of New York, and later served on the New York Supreme Court, eventually becoming its Chief Justice.

I give this background so that it is clear that Yates was a patriot, solidly in support of American liberty and dedicated to the new nation that he helped to bring into existence. Like the other Anti-Federalists, Yates believed that his stance against a more powerful central government was key to America's success. He was not seeking, though opposing the Constitution, to harm or destroy the nation. He firmly believed that the powers given to the Federal government under the Constitution would allow it to subjugate the states and oppress the citizens. 

Yates wrote sixteen Anti-Federalist papers under the pseudonym Brutus. He chose Brutus because it was Brutus who opposed raising Julius Caesar to be Emperor and destroying the Roman Republic. (Hamilton had chosen Publius as a man who had established the Roman Republic, and Yates was sure that the Constitution would not create an American republic, but destroy one that already existed.) To sum up Yates' argument against the Constitution (and that of many other Anti-Federalists), it is this. Under the Constitution, the Federal government has the power to act in the common defense and promote the general welfare. It has the power to make any laws that it deems necessary and proper in order to execute those acts. It has the power to collect duties and taxes in order to carry out those act. And the laws made at the Federal level are the supreme laws of the land, taking precedence over the laws of any state or locality. Within those strictures, the limitations of the enumerated powers notwithstanding, there is nothing that the Federal government cannot do. He believed that whatever power the Constitution allowed men to take, they eventually would take.

Richard Henry Lee
Another series of papers published in New York were written as a series of letters from a person who signed as A Federal Farmer. These letters were addresses to The Republican, who was thought to be Governor George Clinton of New York even though Clinton was an Anti-Federalist himself. The author of these papers is not confirmed, though many scholars believe they were written by Richard Henry Lee, who was at the time a delegate to the US Congress from Virginia . Others believe they were written by Melancton Smith of New York, and still others believe they may have been a collaboration between the two.

Richard Henry Lee was also a great patriot. It had been he who first presented a resolution on American Independence to the Second Continental Congress, leading to the Declaration of Independence. which he eventually signed. He established the first Committees of Correspondence in Virginia, and penned the Leedstown Resolve, an accord between landowners to oppose the Stamp Act, to refuse to pay any tax that was not passed by an act of Parliament, and to oppose any troops who might come to enforce British laws that were made in violation of the British Common Law. Many of the points made in the Declaration of Independence had been part of the Leedstown Resolution.

Patrick Henry

The great Virginia orator Patrick Henry was also strongly against the Constitution, on the basis that the powers given to the Federal government would diminish and eventually destroy the government of the states. Patrick Henry is best known for his stirring "Give me Liberty, or give me Death" speech, which prompted the Virginia government to allow its troops to leave the state in order to participate in the Revolutionary War. This act set George Washington and the Virginia militia free to assist New England states in opposing the British. 

Henry served as Governor of Virginia for many years, so his opinion carried great weight in the Virginia legislature. Henry was not much of a writer, so we have scant records of any of his speeches. But he was a prominent member of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, opposing James Madison at every turn. Thus, one of the best records of his opposition to the Constitution is preserved in the record of the Ratifying Convention, during which Henry made many speeches pointing out flaws in the Constitution and calling for a Bill of Rights to be added before it was ratified.

Anti-Federalists were writing and publishing in nearly every state:

New York Governor George Clinton penned a series of papers using the pseudonym Cato. These papers appeared very early after the Philadelphia Convention, and it is assumed that Hamilton began writing the Federalists Papers to oppose Cato's work.

James Winthrop, a probate register in Middlesex, Massachusetts, wrote a series of letters under the name Aggrippa.

The Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer published papers under the name Centinel, which are believed to have been written by Samuel Bryan, son of an Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, and Eleazer Oswald, the publisher of the Gazetteer.

All of these men who opposed the Constitution were prominent figures in the Revolution. They had all worked, fought, and dedicated "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" to the defense of American liberty. But they were also men who understood their states to be sovereign nations, having but recently won their independence from a foreign foe. Before they would accept the new Constitution, they needed to know that they were not simply giving away the rights and freedoms that they had fought so hard to secure.

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