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Toward an American Revolution
Exposing the Constitution
and other Illusions
South End Press
Copyright © 1988 by Jerry Fresia
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fresia, Gerald John.
Toward and American revolution: exposing the Constitution
and Other illusions by Jerry Fresia.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-89608-298-9: $25.00. ISBN 0-89608-297-0 (pbk.): $10.00
1. Elite (Social sciences)--United States--History. 2.
Social classes--Political aspects--United
States--History. 3. United STates--Constitutional
history. I. Title.
South End Press, 116 Saint Botolph St., Boston, MA 02115
In memory of Malcolm X
Table of Contents
Afraid To Reflect
A Constitution that Disrespects its People
The Constitution: Resurrection of an Imperial System
A System of Injustice
The Constitution and Secret Government
A Song Without Knees
When Protestors Become Police
The Need for Revolutionaries
Appendix A: Constitution of the USA
Appendix B: Federalist Paper #10
I would like to thank Kenneth M. Dolbeare, Nancy Netherland,
Richard Mansfield, Sandia Siegel, and Bethany Weidner for
their criticisms and suggestions, and John McGee for his
technical support. I would like to thank the members of
South End Press for their work and their confidence in me,
especially Cynthia Peters whose editorial support was
helpful in many ways. And finally, I would like to thank my
parents, Armand and Vera, for their long and unwavering
support, their insights, and their criticism.
Rise and demand; you are a burning flame
Afraid to Reflect
What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs; this destiny announces itself everywhere...For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.1
Consider certain features of the lives of three men. The first was a very wealthy man. In l787, many considered him the richest man in all the thirteen states. His will of l789 revealed that he owned 35,000 acres in Virginia and 1,119 acres in Maryland. He owned property in Washington valued (in l799 dollars) at $l9,132, in Alexandria at $4,000, in Winchester at $400, and in Bath at $800. He also held $6,246 worth of U.S. securities, $10,666 worth of shares in the James River Company, $6,800 worth of stock in the Bank of Columbia, and $1,000 worth of stock in the Bank of Alexandria. His livestock was valued at $15,653. As early as 1773, he had enslaved 216 human beings who were not emancipated until after he and his wife had both died.2
- Frederick Nietzsche, 1888
The second man was a lawyer. He often expressed his admiration of monarchy and, correspondingly, his disdain and contempt for common people. His political attitudes were made clear following an incident which occurred in Boston on March 5, 1770. On that day, a number of ropemakers got into an argument with British soldiers whose occupation of Boston had threatened the ropemakers' jobs. A fight broke out and an angry crowd developed. The British soldiers responded by firing into the crowd, killing several. The event has since become known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers involved in the shooting were later acquitted thanks, in part, to the skills of the lawyer we have been describing, who was selected as the defense attorney for the British. He described the crowd as a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.3
The life of the third man was more complex, more filled with contradiction than the other two. He was wealthy. He owned over 10,000 acres and by 1809 he had enslaved 185 human beings. States one biographer, He lived with the grace and elegance of many British lords; his house slaves alone numbered twenty-five. Yet slavery caused him great anxiety; he seems to have sincerely desired the abolition of slavery but was utterly incapable of acting in a way which was consistent with his abolitionist sympathies. He gave his daughter twenty-five slaves as a wedding present, for example. And when confronted with his indebtedness of $107,000 at the end of his life in 1826, he noted that at least his slaves constituted liquid capital. He had several children by one of his slaves and thus found himself in the position of having to face public ridicule or keep up the elaborate pretense that his slave children did not exist. He chose the latter course and arranged, discreetly, to have them run away.4
Who are these three men? We know them well. They are among our Founding Fathers, or Framers as we shall call them. They are the first three presidents of the United States, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
The brief sketches of these men are but glimpses into their
personal lives, but some of the details are significantly
revealing. They suggest that the Framers, far from champions
of the people, were rich and powerful men who sought to
maintain their wealth and status by figuring out ways to
keep common people down. Moreover, I shall present
additional evidence about the lives of the Framers, the
Constitution, and the period in which it was written which
supports the contention that the Framers were profoundly
anti-democratic and afraid of the people. Some of the
information may be surprising. In 1782, for example,
Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris believed that a
stronger central government was needed to restrain the
democratic spirit in the states. Eric Foner tells us
that Morris's private correspondence reveals
only contempt for the common
Benjamin Rush, the
distinguished scientist and physician from Philadelphia
and Framer (although he was not at the Constitutional
Convention), would often refer to common people as
scum. Alexander Hamilton called the people a
great beast.6 Not all the Framers
resorted to name calling, but it is clear that they feared
and distrusted the political participation of common people.
Perhaps even more shocking than the personal opinions of the
Framers, is the process by which the Constitution was
ratified. As described in more detail in Chapter 3, secrecy,
deceit and even violence played key roles in the
Constitution's passage. These unsavory tactics were used by
the Framers and their allies because the majority of the
people were against the ratification of the Constitution.
What is striking about this historical fact is its
similarity with public policy and elite decision-making
today. At times, the interests of elites and the public
interest coincides. When it does not, however, elites tend
to go ahead anyway. And because so much of what
corporate-government elites believe to be in the national
interest violates accepted standards of decency, many public
policies are formulated and carried out covertly. But the
point here is that covert and anti-democratic measures are
not new developments. They have been the method of
guaranteeing class rule ever since the Framers decided that
they needed the present political system to protect their
power and privilege.
It is contrary to everything we've been taught about the Framers to hear that they felt contempt for common people and that their Constitutional Convention was profoundly undemocratic. Indeed such accusations sound even less familiar in the context of the late 1980s when celebrations of the Constitution's bicentennial have brought adulation of this country's political origins to new and even more mindless heights. In its issue celebrating the bicentennial, Newsweek gushed, The educated men in post-Revolutionary America, (and one must presume that this includes the Framers), embraced the political tradition of participatory democracy, the social pretense of virtual classlessness and the economic fact of absolute equality of opportunity. 7 The Founding Fathers are always the champions of freedom, justice, and democracy. Reverence is due to those men..., states Time magazine in its special bicentennial issue. 8
Books and celebrity television specials packed with familiar myths and illusions have been churned out by the dozens. The Constitution itself is the greatest single document struck off by the hand and mind of man we are told by the the Commission on the Bicentennial of the the U.S. Constitution. Thus on the 200th anniversary of the completion of the Constitution, former chief justice Warren Burger, on national TV, led the nation's school children and teachers in a recitation of the Preamble (We the people...) and President Reagan led the country in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. One of the many books honoring our Constitution, We The People by Peter Spier, begins by stating that the U.S. Constitution is the oldest and most significant written document of our history. He goes on to say that the Constitution has come to symbolize freedom, justice, equality, and hope for American citizens as individuals and as a collective, democratic nation. For two hundred years the Constitution has provided its people with rights, liberties, and a free society that people of other nations can only dream of. How familiar Spier's words sound to those of us who have grown up in the United States. From our earliest days we are taught to glorify the Framers and the great American democracy that is their legacy. Even as adults we are still expected to accept the same grade-school, cartoon-like version of our founding.
As citizens we are supposed to be like the nation's school children who are given no choice but to stand by their desks and mindlessly recite a pledge of allegiance to a flag, a pledge that was introduced into schools at the turn of the century to counter the influence of ideas that immigrant school children had received from their parents and from distant lands. The fundamental purpose of bicentennial ideology, then, is to encourage us not to explore competing ways of thinking or to ask hard questions about our heritage. We are not encouraged to think because it is understood that thinking sometimes leads to disagreement, or worse, to the challenging of some sacred text. Instead we are encouraged to believe. Efforts to transform thinking citizens into believing citizens, we should point out, really began at just about the time that the Framers were planning the Constitutional Convention. Disturbing symptoms that common people were ignoring customs of social deference and were beginning to think for themselves led some Framers such as John Dickinson to urge that political instruments be devised to protect the worthy against the licentious. Benjamin Rush, in a proposal entitled The Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, stated: I consider it possible to convert men into republican machines. This must be done, if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state. And so it must be done today, if people are to perform their parts properly. The aim of the ideological manager is, in effect, the creation of millions of republican machines.9
Common sense tells us that people who spend a good deal of time either acquiring or protecting a vast personal empire or defending a king's soldiers against the dispossessed would also have believed that the possession of enormous privilege was just and that protection of that privilege ought to be sought and maintained at considerable cost. Common sense should further compel us to wonder whether such people could write a constitution that would effectively transfer power from their few hands into the hands of the many, that is, into the hands of the poor, the debtors and people without property. Brian Price, an American historian who has spent countless hours studying early American elites' rise to power, asks a similar question: Is it possible for a class which exterminates the native peoples of the Americas, replaces them by raping Africa for humans it then denigrates and dehumanizes as slaves, while cheapening and degrading its own working class - is it possible for such a class to create democracy, equality, and to advance the cause of human freedom? The implicit answer is, No. Of course not.
There is a more specific purpose to all of this, however. If we do accept the illusion - the Constitution as sacred, a shrine up in the higher stretches of American reverence as Time magazine put it, then the serious problems that we face today would have to be aberrations, or deviations from the sacred text. The fundamental principles embedded within the Constitution, because it is the greatest single document struck off by the hand and mind of man [sic] and probably ordained by God at that, are intrinsically good. Only the sins of inept bureaucrats and politicians or the zealotry of ideologues ever get us into serious trouble. It follows from this mythology that there are no fundamental connections between the Constitution and the current crisis. Solving our problems always means going back to the Constitution and, not coincidentally, to the power relationships and privilege in the private sphere (or economy) which the Framers sought to protect.
For example, as Constitutional celebrations were unfolding in the summer of 1987, so too was the tale of government drug-running, assassination, secret government, and private control of foreign policy known as the Iran-Contra affair. A documentary produced for the public broadcasting system, The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis, and which aired in the fall of 1987, broke new ground by revealing to a mass audience some of the facts regarding the role that the federal government has played in assassinating foreign leaders and in over-throwing democratically elected governments. Yet the documentary was quite explicit in stating that this secret government, rather than possibly having its roots in the distrust and fear of common people expressed by the Framers or in their protection and elevation of private power, is a violation of Constitutional principles. Of course, the Constitution was never critically examined. Instead, the sense of empowered citizenship was invoked as the hallowed words We the People were dragged slowly and dramatically across the screen, patriotic music provided the backdrop of sanctification, and Bill Moyers intoned, Our nation was born in rebellion against tyranny. We are the fortunate heirs of those who fought for America's freedom and then drew up a remarkable charter to protect it against arbitrary power. The Constitution begins with the words `We the People.' The government gathers its authority from the people and the governors are as obligated to uphold the law as the governed.
So what is missing? Moyers said not a word about corporate power, which the Framers chose to insulate from popular accountability and which has since grown and become concentrated and arbitrary in ways unimaginable to elites of the eighteenth century. The failure of the Constitution to provide checks against corporate (private) power can be directly linked to the private control of foreign policy. This defect, so obviously undemocratic, has become increasingly exposed. Moyer's revelations divert our attention away from this essential flaw and thus serve as a quite sophisticated, albeit ineffective, cover-up. Nor did Moyers tell us that some government officials such as the Director of Central Intelligence, who may spend money without regard to the provisions of law and regulations relating to the expenditure of government funds, are not obligated to uphold certain laws as are the governed. Could it be that by design the Constitution requires that a few considerate and virtuous citizens check and balance the interested and overbearing majority? Perhaps, but such subtleties tend to complicate, if not contradict, what must be among the greatest stories ever told, namely that the Constitution begins with the words, We the People. Stop there, we are told. Do not go any further. For to go beyond the grade-school version of our founding is to raise the possibility that the Constitution might be defective in some fundamental way. Viewers might conclude that U.S.-sponsored terrorism may not be a deviation from Constitutional principles but rather the logical consequence of a system which protects the freedom of a handful of Americans to control a good deal of the earth's resources and, correspondingly, the lives of millions of people scattered around the globe. Similar connections between our founding ideas and the virulent racism that now exists, the subordination of women, the massive inequality that marks our society, and what some are pointing to as irreversible environmental degradation could also be made. To move beyond the history constructed for us, then, would be to admit the possibility that one could expose and call into question the legitimacy of the Framers and the system of elite rule they established through the Constitution. It would be permitting citizens of today to become more intimately familiar and identified with the lives and values of the people - a majority - one must emphasize, who opposed the Constitution at the time it was given to the states for ratification. Of course, if the ideological managers were to permit an honest reassessment of who the Framers really were and what they really did, nothing might come of it. But it is the very intensity itself of the ideological stranglehold over our own history which suggests that it is ruling elites, not you or I, who are afraid that if a candid assessment of the Framers and the Constitution were to become common knowledge, it would help citizens to explain their sense of political powerlessness and invite the kind of self-discovery that underlies effective radical politics. The monopoly of truth, including historical truth, states Daniel Singer, is implied in the monopoly of power.
Three Obstacles to Effective Radical Politics
The central theme of this book can be summarized as follows: We live in an undemocratic system that is a major source of terror and repression, both at home and around the world. In large measure this is due to the tremendous concentration of unchecked corporate power. Our responsibility, as citizens and as a people, is to challenge the structure of power within our society, particularly the private power of the corporate-banking community. The Constitution prohibits this. In fact, the Constitution was intended to ensure that only a few people would run the government and that they would be the few who would run the economy. The crisis confronting us, in other words, demands effective radical politics and a departure from many Constitutional values, assumptions, and principles. Effective radical politics, however, is inhibited by our acceptance and glorification of the Constitution and the Framers who engineered its ratification. It is as if we believe the IBM ad which stated, The Constitution is a political work of art...and...It's also the most important contract of your life. We shouldn't have to depend upon or live by IBM's conception of justice today anymore than we should have to depend upon or live by the conception of justice articulated by rich and powerful white men, many of them slaveowners, who lived 200 years ago. Our values are not their values. The government of the United States does not, in its policies, express the decency of its people. It lacks legitimacy. And we need to confront that fact.
Ideologically, then, there are three obstacles to effective radical politics. They are 1) respect for the Constitution as a fair and equitable and democratic document; 2) the underlying belief that the U.S. government is fair, acts justly, or would under ordinary circumstances; and 3) a reluctance on the part of most citizens whose values are at odds with those expressed by corporate and state policy to engage in confrontation. In Chapters 2 through 4, I discuss why the Constitution is not a fair and equitable document, why it impedes rather than encourages democracy, and why it is, ultimately, a constitution that disrespects its people. In Chapters 4 and 5, I explain why I believe that the government of the United States, in order to meet its obligation of protecting the private empire of corporate elites, cannot meet its obligation to promote the common interest of the majority of its people and cannot, therefore, act justly under ordinary circumstances. I argue in this section that we live in a system of injustice. Finally, in Chapters 6 and 7, I argue that each of us as citizens must develop a sense of self-respect and self-confidence that necessarily challenges the role set for us by the Framers as obedient and dependent republican machines. We need, as I explain below, to learn a song without knees. Before moving on, let us discuss each of these obstacles a bit further and then briefly review the lives of the founding fathers so that we get a better sense of just who they were.
A Constitution That Disrespects Its People
I have been suggesting that at the very heart of our political institutions, at the very core of our way of doing politics is fear and distrust of the political activity of common people. As we explore more deeply the vision of the Framers and the historical context of their work, we shall find that the Framers repeatedly expressed what they felt was the need to check and balance the political expression of people who were not like themselves, who were not involved in the market economy, who did not own much property, and who were not very rich. John Adams believed that Men in general...who are wholly destitute of property, are also too little acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgment, and too dependent on other men to have a will of their own.10 In fact, when the Framers used the term the people they had in mind the middling property owning people or, generally speaking, the middle class. It is the political expression of this middle class which they also distrusted but which they felt they had to permit if property owners were to be free from government interference. The Framers were thus willing to permit the limited participation (through the House of Representatives - remember that the Constitution did not permit the direct election of the Senate and we still do not elect the president directly) of white males who met state property qualifications.
The political expression of classes below the middle class property owners, women, or people of color, indentured servants, or people with no property - in short, the people in the first instance as Charles Pinckney called them, or the majority, was simply nonsense and wrong. Political expression by these groups was not permitted and as we shall note, the Constitution was purposefully made to be anti-majoritarian in several ways. Representatives were to be of and among the better people who would have a material stake in society, who would be less given to some common impulse of passion, and who would be able to tell us what our real needs and interests are. Amendments have broadened the definition of the people to include most of those who were excluded in 1787. But the Constitution's very design, its processes, and its structure still gives life to the eighteenth century elitist belief that rich and powerful people ought to rule. The Constitution still disrespects the political wisdom of most people, of workers, particularly people of color, of women, and of those who happen to be poor.
A System of Injustice
The vision of the Framers, even for Franklin and Jefferson who were less fearful of the politics of common people than most, was that of a strong centralized state, a nation whose commerce and trade stretched around the world. In a word, the vision was one of empire where property owners would govern themselves. It would be a nation in which ambitious industrious (white Anglo-Saxon) men would be finally free from the Crown and from the Church to do with their property as they pleased and as their talents permitted. It would be a nation organized around private power where there would be freedom to acquire wealth and the function of the state and of its executive would be to protect these freedoms and opportunities, defined as natural rights. Meanwhile, it was perceived that the only real threat, to paraphrase Madison, to the rights of the few virtuous citizens and therefore to the common good, would come from the overbearing majority, the people without property. For it is the less virtuous and less industrious people, the people in debt for example, who would seek to redistribute property and invade the rights of others.
There is a tension, then, between the elite who privately own productive resources and the multitudes who are made dependent, who, as Karl Marx noted, must sell their lives in order to live. Within this relationship of power, the Constitution protects the power of the more powerful. It does this because the Framers believed that it was the right of a few better people to own and control much of the earth's resources. And it does this because the Framers believed that the lives of women, people of color, and the poor ought to be defined in terms of the desires and interests of the rich. Resistance to this tyranny, from the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 to the revolutionary leaders of today who are genuinely committed to directing meager resources to the majority poor in the Third World, are and have been brutally repressed because the national army created by the Constitution is directed by that document to preserve these relationships of disparity. Of course, relationships of disparity are not referred to as such by elites. They would prefer to call them our rights and our freedom. Thus our concepts of rights and of freedom are interwoven with the Framers' vision of conquest and empire and privilege.
A Song Without Knees
Eric Foner writes that in the minds of the founding fathers was a view of human nature as susceptible to corruption, basically self-interested and dominated by passion rather than reason. It was because of this natural `depravity' of human nature that democracy was inexpedient: a good constitution required a `mixed' government to check the passions of the people, as well as representing their interests. We should add that the founding fathers were less worried about checking their own passions. They did not see themselves as depraved. Only common people were depraved.11
We are the legacy of that warped view. Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers point out that none of the major initiatives of the Reagan administration (tax cuts for the rich, budget cuts in social programs, and increased militarism, particularly increased funding for nuclear weapons and the sponsorship of terrorist armies such as the Contras) followed popular initiatives. Instead they were initiated by business elites.12 Ours is a system, as Noam Chomsky regularly reminds us, of elite decisionmaking with occasional ratification by an irrelevant public. When one studies the views of the Framers, one discovers that it was never intended to be otherwise. The larger problem, however, is that we have become used to playing a subservient role. We live, politically, on our knees.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at times stated that perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement was that blacks, who had been brought to America in darkness and chains, had learned to straighten up their bent backs. We won our self-respect, he said. An inner sense of dignity had been acquired. Stephen Oates, a King biographer, writes with regard to one particular woman in the movement:
For her and the others who participated, the movement of 1965 became the central event of their lives, a time of self-liberation when they stood and marched to glory with Martin Luther King. Yes, they were surprised at themselves, proud of the strength they had displayed in confronting the state of Alabama, happy indeed, as Marie Foster said, to be a new Negro in a new South - a Negro who is no longer afraid. And that perhaps was King's greatest gift to his long-suffering people in Dixie: he taught them how to confront those who oppressed them.......13
In so many ways all of us live in chains and darkness. Writes Starhawk, Women, working-class people, people of color, and people without formal education, are conditioned to think of their opinions and feelings as valueless. They are taught to listen to an inner voice that murmurs, `You shouldn't say that. You only think that because something is wrong with you. Everybody else knows more about things than you do.' 14 We have yet to learn to straighten our backs. We wish to believe that confronting those who disrespect us is somehow bad or itself disrespectful. But we need to learn that proper confrontation is a source of dignity and a necessary first step to politics. Otherwise politics becomes draining. For without a sense of confidence and purpose we play by the rules the Framers set down, rules that were designed for the depraved.
In Nicaragua, there is a song called Song Without Knees. It tells of life under the dictator Somoza and how the revolution was a process in which people learned to get off their knees, learned to stand up and express themselves as healthy and creative people. Here in the United States we too need to learn a Song Without Knees so that we can create space for a politics without knees, a politics which is rooted not in the fear and distrust of common people, but one which departs fundamentally from the myths and illusions of the founding period which hold many of us hostage in a state of comfort, denial, and unfortunately, irresponsibility.
The Founding Fathers
These 35 Framers were considered the most active. Unless
otherwise indicated, the following information was drawn
from chapters 5 and 7 of Charles Beard, An Economic
Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States
(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948); Chapter 8 of
Clinton Rossiter, The Grand Convention (New York:
The Macmillan Company, 1966); and Page Smith, The
Constitution (New York: William Morrow and Company,
Abraham Baldwin of Georgia
He was a wealthy lawyer who possessed a few thousand dollars worth of public securities. He wanted the Senate to be composed of men of property so that they could check the House of Representatives which was apt to be composed of men of less substantial wealth and therefore closer to the common people.
Gunning Bedford of Delaware
He was the son of a substantial land owner, a lawyer, and was eventually elected governor of his state. He was in favor of a more democratic Constitution than the one we have now which he felt checked the Representatives of the People more than was necessary.
William Blount of North Carolina
He was born into a substantial planting family and was very deeply involved in land speculation. He enslaved human beings.
Pierce Bulter of South Carolina
He enslaved thirty-one human beings. He also was a stockholder and director of the first United States bank. He felt that no congressional representatives should be directly elected by the people, that the Senate ought to represent property, and that slavery ought to be protected. He was responsible for the Constitution's fugitive slave law and he also warmly urged the justice and necessity of regarding wealth in the apportionment of representation.
George Clymer of Pennsylvania
He possessed a large fortune, held public securities, and helped create the Bank of Pennsylvania. He believed that a representative of the people is appointed to think for and not with his constituents. And later as a member of Congress he showed a total disregard to the opinions of his constituents when opposed to the matured decisions of his own mind.
John Dickinson of Delaware
He was a member of one of the established landed families of the South, a lawyer, and he married into one of the wealthiest commercial families in Philadelphia. He wanted a monarchy and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. He seems to have constantly worried about the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property & without principle.
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut
He was the most successful lawyer Connecticut had yet known with a fortune quite uncommonly large. He held public securities and invested in the Hartford Bank and the Hartford Broadcloth Mill. He was also regarded, perhaps more than any other member at the Convention, as someone who feared levelling democracy. He argued that voting be limited to those who paid taxes. Regarding slavery he said, As slaves multiply so fast...it is cheaper to raise than import them....[But] let us not intermeddle. As population increases; poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless.
Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania
He was a printer, scientist, author, diplomat and land speculator who had accumulated a considerable fortune. More than anyone at the convention, he was sympathetic to meaningful self-government. Because of this he was known to have serious doubts about the Constitution but signed it anyway. Charles L. Mee, Jr., in The Genius of the People, states, Franklin disliked the document, thinking it cheated democracy.
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts
He was a Harvard graduate and a merchant with a considerable estate. In reference to the political unrest at the time of the Convention, he complained that The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. He did not want any members of the new national government to be elected by popular vote, having been taught the danger of the levelling spirit. Although he was quite active at the Convention, Gerry had numerous objections to the final draft and he refused to sign it.
Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts
He was a successful merchant who was involved in land speculation on a large scale. He expressed what was then the general attitude about the one chamber that was popularly elected (given the restricted franchise) when he said, All agree that a check on the legislative branch is necessary. He was sympathetic to monarchy and during the Convention secretly wrote to European royalty in hope of involving someone with royal blood in governing the United States.
Alexander Hamilton of New York
He was an eminent lawyer who perhaps more than any other delegate was responsible for organizing the Convention, and later, as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington, for implementing the Constitution and institutionalizing its relation to the private economy. He greatly admired monarchy and time and again emphasized the need to check the amazing violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit. Hamilton believed that government ought to be an instrument in the hands of creditors, financiers, and bankers. When he later sought to create a national bank, he said that it would help unite the interest and credit of the rich individuals with those of the state.15 His statement at the Convention concerning the relationship between government, the rich, and the poor deserves to be quoted at length because it represents what was then a very common attitude among elites:
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the Second....Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy....It is admitted that you cannot have a good executive upon a democratic plan.16
William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut
He was a wealthy and successful lawyer and graduate of Yale who refused to help in the War of Independence because he could not conscientiously take up arms against England. Clinton Rossiter describes him as the nearest thing to an aristocrat in mind and manner that Connecticut had managed to produce in its 150 years. He was one of the few northerners at the Convention who simply did not worry about slavery or the slave trade.
Rufus King of Massachusetts
He was born into and married into wealthy families, was a Harvard graduate, and had extensive mercantile and other business interests. He was also a large holder of government securities and was later director of the first United States bank. King argued in favor of a strong unimpeachable executive and urged that the judiciary be permitted to check the political tendencies of common people whom he felt would use legislatures to attack the privilege of property owners. He was responsible for the clause which prevented any state from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts. This clause greatly helped the rich, as we shall see.
John Langdon of New Hampshire
He was uniformly prosperous and a man of great wealth and pressing commercial interests, the leading merchant from Portsmouth. He was a large creditor of the new government (the third largest holder of public securities among all the Framers) and a strong supporter of a national bank.
James Madison of Virginia
He was a descendant of one of the old landed families, studied law at Princeton, and at one time enslaved 116 human beings. He has been called the most active of all the moving spirits of the new government. For this reason he is acknowledged as the Father of the Constitution. He greatly feared that the majority of people with little or no property would take away the property of the few who held quite a bit. He very much liked the Constitution because he believed that it would check the majority from establishing paper money, the abolition of debts, an equal division of property, or other wicked projects. And in general it would prevent the majority from discovering their own strength and from acting in union with each other. His defense of the Constitution in Federalist No. 10, found in the Appendix, is the most concise and clearest example of the political thought that undergirds our political institutions. Because his role in the design of the Constitution was so central, I shall quote him frequently; his political thought weighs heavily upon us today.
Luther Martin of Maryland
He was a successful lawyer and graduate of Princeton, but his fortune was never large. He enslaved only six human beings. He was in sympathy with poor debtors generally and argued that the government ought to protect the debtor against the wealthy creditor and the moneyed man in times of crisis. He refused to sign the Constitution, given its protection of creditors, and fought hard against its ratification.
George Mason of Virginia
He was a speculator in land, owning some 75,000 acres. He also owned $50,000 worth of other personal property and he enslaved 300 human beings. Like many large slaveowners, he feared a strong national government and a standing army. He was a strong proponent of the right of individuals to own property without government interference. Given the lack of a Bill of Rights and the strong central power sanctioned by the Constitution, Mason feared that the new system would result in monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy; he refused to sign it. Mason is a classic example of a Framer for whom rights meant the protection of private power and privilege. Mason did not object to the anti-democratic features of the Constitution, rather he objected to the fact that a national government might someday interfere with his individual freedom as a property owner, that is, his rights.
John Francis Mercer of Maryland
He enslaved six human beings. He also held a moderate amount of public securities. He stated that the people cannot know and judge of the characters of candidates. The worst possible choice will be made. He left the Convention early, and strongly opposed the ratification of the Constitution.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania
He was a lawyer who was born into the landed aristocracy of New York. A rich man, he helped establish the Bank of North America. He was an aristocrat to the core, once stating that there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an Aristocracy. He believed that common people were incapable of self-government and that poor people would sell their votes. He argued, Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. Voting should be restricted to property owners. He shaped the Constitution more than most men at the Convention (he made 173 speeches, more than anyone) and was responsible for the style in which it was written.
William Patterson of New Jersey
He was a lawyer, graduate of Princeton, and attorney general of New Jersey who was born in Ireland. He resisted the creation of a strong central government and left the Convention early.
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina
A successful lawyer, and a considerable landowner, he enslaved fifty-two human beings. Taking the side of the creditor against the debtor, he had been among the Congressmen who were critical of the Articles of Confederation and sought the creation of a centralized national government. At twenty-nine, he was the youngest member of the Convention. He believed that members of government ought to be possessed of competent property to make them independent & respectable. He wrote to Madison before the Constitution was ratified, Are you not...abundantly impressed that the theoretical nonsense of an election of Congress by the people in the first instance is clearly and practically wrong, that it will in the end be the means of bringing our councils into contempt?
General Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina
A successful lawyer who worked for the merchants of Charlestown, he was also a large landowner in Charleston, and he enslaved human beings. He felt that the Senate ought to represent the wealth of the country, that members of the government ought to hold property, and according to Clinton, believed in the need for stiff measures to restrain the urges of arrant democracy.
Edmund Randolph of Virginia
He was a successful lawyer who owned 7,000 acres of land. He enslaved nearly 200 human beings. He held considerable public securities. He believed that the problems confronting the United States at the time were due to the turbulence and follies of democracy. The new Constitution, therefore, ought to check popular will. He thought that the best way of doing this would be to create a independent Senate composed of relatively few rich men.
George Read of Delaware
A successful lawyer who lived in the style of the colonial gentry, enslaved human beings, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was in favor of doing away with states and wanted the President to be elected for life and have absolute veto power.
John Rutledge of South Carolina
He was a very successful lawyer who also owned five plantations. He enslaved twenty-six human beings. He said that the defects of democracy have been found arbitrary, severe, and destructive. We see in Rutledge a clear expression of the notion that the general welfare is, in essence, economic development and accumulation. With regard to the issue of objections to slavery, he stated: Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with Nations. The true question at present is whether the Southern states shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interests they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut
He was a shoemaker, storekeeper, farmer who rose from poverty to affluence and he also owned public securities. A signer of the Declaration and drafter of the Articles of Confederation, Sherman was not terribly enthusiastic about a strong national government. But nor was he enthusiastic about popular sovereignty. He said, The people immediately should have as little to do as may be about the government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.
Caleb Strong of Massachusetts
He was a lawyer and Harvard graduate. He owned public securities and seems to have accumulated considerable wealth. He was in favor of more frequent congressional elections than what the Constitution eventually mandated. He left the Convention early and went home.
George Washington of Virginia
As we have noted, by several accounts Washington was the richest man in the United States and he enslaved hundreds of human beings. He made only one speech at the Convention and seems to have had no particular theory of government. He distrusted popular democratic tendencies and viewed criticism of the government, as Beard notes, as akin to sedition. He also feared the growth of urban populations, stating that The tumultuous populace of large cities are ever to be dreaded. Their indiscriminate violence prostates for the time all public authority.
Hugh Williamson of North Carolina
Educated as a medical doctor, he inherited a great trading operation. He also speculated in land and owned public securities. He wrote Madison following the Convention that he thought an efficient federal government would in the end contribute to the increase in value of his land. He sided with creditors against debtors in his state. At the Convention he was generally in favor of shifting power away from the states toward the national level.
James Wilson of Pennsylvania
Born in Scotland, he was a successful lawyer whose clients were primarily merchants and men of affairs. He was one of the directors of the Bank of North America. He was involved in the corrupt Georgia Land Company and held shares to the amount of at least one million acres. He later became a member of the Supreme Court. He was apprehensive, as were most of his colleagues, about the opportunity that common people would have to express themselves politically though legislatures. But he also believed that the judiciary would be a sufficient check on popular will. He, therefore, was in favor of more popular participation in the selection of government officials (popular election of the President and the Senate) than the Constitution permitted.
Frederick Nietzsche, The Will to Power (ed.)
Walter Kaufman and (tr.) Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New
York: Random House, 1967), 4.
Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of
the Constitution of the United States (New York: The
Macmillian Company, 1948), 144, 145.
Howard Zinn, A Framers History of the United
States (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 67.
Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson (New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1974).
This statement was made in a lecture at the Evergreen
State College, Olympia, Washington, in October 1987.
Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 190. Here I am
using the term Framers broadly. It refers not only to those who
wrote the Constitution but to others such as John Adams, Thomas
Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Robert Morris and others who played
leading roles in shaping our political and economic institutions.
Newsweek , May 25, 1987, 47.
Time, July 6, 1987, 35.
John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine (New
York: Penguin Books, 1976), 31,32.
Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The
Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).
Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound (New
York: Harper & Row, 1982), 361.
Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1982), 101.
Wilfred E. Binkley, American Political Parties
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943), 40.
Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal
Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966),
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