Thursday, October 04, 2007

Our Dysfunctional Republic Part 3

The American Revolution and the Constitution




With the Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms having been written, and the Declaration of Independence formally signed, America was now formally at war with Britain. Those who signed these documents, and who took up arms to fight against the crown were considered treasonous by the English. Nevertheless, they firmly believed in their cause, stating in the final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, "...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor".

Although the American Revolution was already underway, it was not as widely supported as you may have thought. There were still loyalists, those who wished to remain loyal subjects under English rule. The loyalists disagreed with the idea of American independence. Loyalists were numerous and included small farmers as well as large landowners, royal officeholders, and members of the professions. They were to be found in varying strength in every colony. There were also those who were neutral, having not taken either side in regards to the issue of independence. A notable division was between Benjamin Franklin, who supported the fight for independence, and his son William Franklin who was loyal to the crown.

The Revolutionary war began with the 'shot heard around the world', and, depending upon whether you consider it to have ended when General Cornwallis surrendered or when the Treaty of Paris was signed, the American Revolution lasted between 7 to 8 years.

It was not an easy battle, this fight for our nations independence. George Washington lost many of his first battles and the outcome was never certain. Fortunately, with increasing military skill, and aid from our allies, the colonies defeated the British, and in 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally ending the War. America was now officially a free and independent nation.

The colonial patriots knew, that if they were successful in winning the fight for their independence, that they would need some form of government to hold the colonies together. Therefore on July 12, 1776, just eight days after signing the Declaration of Independence, drafted the Articles of Confederation, a constitutional agreement made between the 13 states. However, it wasn't until after many years, and just as many revisions, that they were formally adopted.

The Articles of Confederation, which contained 13 Articles, did such things as establish the name of our country, The United States of America, explained the rights of the individual states and the amount of power they were entitled to. It also bound them together for the common defense, gave people the right to freely move between one state and another, established the ability to extradite fugitives. It also allocated on vote in the Congress to each state, while members of Congress were appointed by state legislatures. It limited the power of the central government to conduct foreign relations and declaring war. Finally it made Congress the final court for disputes among states.

The Articles of Confederation severely limited the powers of the central government. For instance, they could not raise revenue for their operations. There was no executive branch to enforce the laws and no judicial branch to interpret them. There was only a Congress, and a President of the Continental Congress, whose job was similar to the Speaker of the House today, the most notable of these being John Hancock.

The Congress realized that the Articles of Confederation were weak and needed revision, therefore on February 21, 1787 Congress resolved: "It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation."

James Madison had for years been studying history and political theory, hoping to find a solution to the problems that faced America. Madison knew that the government and the states were on the brink of economic disaster, the Congress was running on a depleted treasury and paper money was flooding the country, causing extraordinary inflation. Many were being thrown into jail for failure to pay debts and farms were being confiscated and sold for the taxes owed. Madison, and many others understood that something had to be done if the country were to survive.

In September of 1786, commissioners from 5 states met in the Annapolis Convention. Their desire was to discuss how to adjust the Articles of Confederation so as to remedy to problems the country faced. They eventually invited representatives from all the states to Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the Articles of Confederation.

Of the seventy four delegates invited, fifty five attended, Rhode Island had decided not to send any delegates. They thought that the Philadelphia convention was an attempt to overthrow the existing government.

Many others felt the same way, including Patrick Henry, who claimed he 'smelled a rat'. He suspected that Madison had plans to create a powerful central government which would subvert the powers and authority of the states.

The first plan to be introduced at the Constitutional Convention was the Virginia Plan. On May 29, the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph opened the debate and outlined a broad plan that would create a government with three branches, executive, legislative, and judicial. Each branch had the power to keep the others in check, the basic framework of our current form of government today. However, under Randolph's plan, the federal government had the ability to veto legislation created by the states. The rat that Patrick Henry had smelled was now exposed.

Many of the smaller states were revolted by the plan for a strong central government. On June 13, delegates from the smaller states proposed the New Jersey Plan, a plan to merely modify the existing Articles of Confederation. This plan, although it showed the great division between ideas for a new form of government, was quickly voted down.

On June 18, Alexander Hamilton offered up his own proposal. Hamilton went so far as to call the British government 'the best in the world'. This did not go over well with many of the members of the convention. Hamilton's plan proposed an executive to serve for life during good behavior. This executive would have veto power over all laws. It would also include a Senate which had the power to pass all laws whatsoever. Hamilton's plan was defeated as well.

On June 29 the smaller states lost their first battle. The convention approved a resolution that established population as the basis for representation in the House of Representatives. This, of course, favored the larger states. On a following proposal which gave the smaller states equal representation, the vote ended in a tie. The friction at this point was palpable, as one delegate thought that the convention 'was on the verge of dissolution, scarce held together by the strength of an hair.'

By July, George Washington was so frustrated that he regretted having any agency in the proceedings. He went so far as to call the opponents of a strong central government 'narrow minded politicians'.

Luther Martin of Maryland, possibly one of those who Washington considered narrow minded responded by saying, "The States have a right to an equality of representation. This is secured to us by our present articles of confederation; we are in possession of this privilege."

The smaller states had become so disenchanted that they threatened to withdraw completely from the Convention. On July 2 they were still deadlocked over this issue so the subject was given to a committee of 11 to effect a compromise. On July 5 the committee submitted it's report, hereafter known as the Great Compromise. The report recommended that in the upper house each state would get an equal vote and in the lower house they would be represented according to population. All bills regarding taxation should originate from the lower house.

With al the animosity, the delegates were still able to put together a draft and on Monday August 6, 1787, it was presented to the convention. It was an actual article by article model which the members could review and consider for their approval. It wasn't soon that the air of compromise quickly evaporated. Controversy soon erupted over the regulation of commerce, with the southern states complaining that they would become nothing but overseers for the Northern States under the proposed Constitution. On August 31, George Mason wearily wrote that he would "sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands."

These differences were eventually worked out and on September 12 a draft was ordered printed. It was then reviewed for three days by the delegates against the previous proceedings. The final draft was ordered printed by Jacob Shallus on September 15.

Even with the compromise and effort, not everyone was satisfied. Some delegates left before the final ceremony and three refused to sign the document. Realizing the impending difficulty of obtaining the consent of the states to the new instrument of Government, they were anxious to obtain the unanimous support of all the delegations from each state. In order that the Convention might appear to be unanimous, Governor Morris devised the formula "Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th of September...In witness whereof we hereunto subscribed our names."

On September 17, a speech written by Ben Franklin, was delivered by his colleague James Wilson in which was said, "I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats."

Upon leaving the convention on that final day, it was asked of Benjamin Franklin, "Well Doctor, what have we got--a Republic or a Monarchy?" To which Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

The delegates of the Philadelphia Convention had overcome their disagreements and created the Constitution that we now have. Yet the hard part was yet to come, getting the individual states to accept it. Almost immediately groups rose up against it because of the concept of the strong central government it proposed. Chief among these were the Anti-Federalists.

Scores of articles flooded that newspapers arguing against the proposed Constitution. It seemed that after all that work, the Constitution might never obtain enough votes to be ratified by the required number of states to go into effect.
In October, Anti-Federalist Samuel Bryan published the first of his 'Centinel' essays in which he argued against the power of the central government, the usurpation of state authority, and the lack of a bill of rights.

To counter the attacks against the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay penned a series of articles under the pseudonym Publius, which later came to be known as the Federalist Papers. These 85 essays outlined the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the reasons for supporting the proposed Constitution. Thomas Jefferson later called the Federalist Papers the "best commentary on the principles of government ever written."

Although the Federalist Papers had done much to help garner support for the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists still held a powerful card to play, the lack of a bill of rights. In addressing the Virginia convention, Patrick Henry asked, "What can avail your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances."

The Anti-Federalist demanded a more concise Constitution, one that out specifically the rights of the people and the limitations of the government. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand felt that a bill of rights was dangerous, stating, "I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and in the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?"

The need to pacify the Anti-Federalists ended up being too great and even Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that a bill of rights was,’...what the people are entitled to against every government...’. By the fall of 1788, Madison had become convinced that a bill of rights was necessary to ensure ratification of the Constitution.

With the bill of rights in place, the Constitution was finally ratified and on March 4, 1789 and the new formed government went into effect. Later James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the welding of these clashing interests was "a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it." Towards the end of Madison’s life he penned another letter, one which was never sent. In it he stated that no government can be perfect, however, "that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government.".

The Constitution, aside from various amendments, has been the basis of our form of government all this time. While it may not be perfect, it contains the essential means necessary for the people to retain their individual liberties, while still allowing for the central government to manage the affairs of the nation. All that depended upon us understanding the principles outlined in it and keeping a close eye on our government, watching for any violations or usurpations of power.

So, what does this Constitution actually say?

to be continued...

1 comment:

The Zombieslayer said...

Upon leaving the convention on that final day, it was asked of Benjamin Franklin, "Well Doctor, what have we got--a Republic or a Monarchy?" To which Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

I remember reading this awhile back. Loved that line.

Had no idea that Franklin's son favored the English, and Hamilton wanted a sovereign for life.

Nice prelude.

By the way, tagged you.