Toward an American Revolution
Exposing the Constitution and other Illusions
The Constitution: Resurrection of An Imperial System
[O]ur...Founding Fathers, knew the ideas, language, and reality of empire....It became...synonymous with the realization of their Dream....Under the leadership of Madison, the...convention of 1787...produced (behind locked doors) the Constitution. Both in the mind of Madison and in its nature, the Constitution was an instrument of imperial government at home and abroad.
We tend to view the Constitution as having been written with the full blessing and approval of the people. Such was not the case. The delegates had agreed to secrecy. Few knew what happened at the convention or what was said until 1840. The Federalist Papers were more a defense of Constitutional principles than a record of what had transpired there. Fifty-three years passed after the Constitution had been written before notes of the convention discussions were made public. The reason for secrecy was simple. When the Constitution was completed, the majority of the people were completely against it.2 The majority instead identified with the document which was the constitution from 1781 to 1789, the Articles of Confederation.
Under the Articles there was no Senate or Supreme Court or President. There was just one branch of government, the Congress. A centralized government that could pass uniform legislation and coerce the states to go along or use force to put down rebellions had disappeared with the Declaration of Independence and the Articles were designed to keep it that way. There was wide agreement, particularly among the middle and lower classes that whatever the new government was to be in the United States, it should not be like the highly centralized, strongly national government of Great Britain. Rather, political power should be as close to the local level as possible; and it should be decentralized, broken down into many parts which could be brought together into a congress. But that was it. Distant, impersonal, centralized government in which a few had power over the many was feared and thought to be counter to the purpose of the struggle for independence.
The states were completely equal, each having a delegation with one vote. Congress settled disputes between the states. Elections were held every year. Declarations of war, military build-ups, or even treaties had to first have the approval of at least nine of the thirteen states. Congress could not stop a state from issuing paper money. On a regular basis, Congress could only tax to raise money for the Post Office. There were severe restrictions on holding office and a conscious effort to limit individual power. No one could be a member of Congress for more than three out of any six years; no one could be president of Congress for more than one year out of any three. Members could be recalled at any time by their respective state governments. States were not permitted to keep vessels of war in peacetime or maintain troops (unless for defense and with the approval of Congress).
Perhaps the greatest defect of the Articles was an inability to enforce or create unity. States could go their separate ways or fail to respond to particular rulings and nothing could be done about it. The Articles were also an obstacle to the development of national and international relations of trade. Congress lacked the power to regulate or coordinate interstate or foreign trade or even develop a uniform currency. Nor did it have the power to tax. The groups most troubled by the weaknesses of the Articles were those whose own private businesses were dependent upon the protection of interstate and international markets. Interstate and international trade barriers, for example, greatly interfered with merchants and producers implicated in the market economy. Emergent manufacturers were interested in protective tariffs. Many of the plantation owners and merchants were also land speculators and moneylenders; hence they were interested in creating a strong military power which could force or use the threat of force to compel Native Americans, slaves, debtors, or similarly disadvantaged people to act in accordance with their interests, both domestically and internationally.
There was generally agreement across classes (that were permitted to express themselves politically) that the Articles needed to be strengthened. The sovereignty of the nation depended upon it. But among the common people of those classes the issue was how best to amend the Articles. But for a few very powerful Framers, such as George Washington, John Dickinson, Charles Carroll, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and Alexander Hamilton, the issue was not how to amend the Articles. They had never supported the Articles to begin with.3 For them the goal was to restructure the government entirely. The inferior people or men of more humble, more rural origins, less educated, and with more parochial interests4 had too much political influence; they had used state legislatures, in some instances, to curb private economic power and expansion in the interest of community. John Lloyd worried that Gentlemen of property too frequently lost electoral contests to men from the lower classes. Elbridge Gerry seems to have had a similar concern when he said that if western farmers obtained influence equal to that of eastern merchants they would oppress commerce, and drain out wealth into the Western Country. For them the goal was to restructure the government entirely. The inferior people or men of more humble, more rural origins, less educated, and with more parochial interests had too much political influence; they had used state legislatures, in some instances, to curb private economic power and expansion in the interest of community. John Lloyd worried that Gentlemen of property too frequently lost electoral contests to men from the lower classes. Elbridge Gerry seems to have had a similar concern when he said that if western farmers obtained influence equal to that of eastern merchants they would oppress commerce, and drain out wealth into the Western Country. For them the goal was to restructure the government entirely. The inferior people or men of more humble, more rural origins, less educated, and with more parochial interests had too much political influence; they had used state legislatures, in some instances, to curb private economic power and expansion in the interest of community. John Lloyd worried that Gentlemen of property too frequently lost electoral contests to men from the lower classes. Elbridge Gerry seems to have had a similar concern when he said that if western farmers obtained influence equal to that of eastern merchants they would oppress commerce, and drain out wealth into the Western Country.5
The Framers preferred a system more like Great Britain in which the better people had the authority to use the state to promote the expansion of a private economy independently of what the inferior people might think is in their best interest. They believed, paraphrasing John Locke, that having more in proportion than the rest of the World, or than our Neighbours, whereby we are enabled to procure to ourselves a greater Plenty of the Conveniences of Life was the end to which the state should be committed. Empire is freedom. It is natural. It is our right.
A Coup d'étatAlthough it is a misnomer, those who supported the Framers in their effort to ratify the Constitution have been called federalists. Those who opposed the Constitution and favored the federal form of government provided by the Articles of Confederation have been misleadingly referred to as anti-federalists. The Framers who were pushing for a Constitutional Convention wanted a national government, not a federation of states, and would have been more accurately labeled nationalists. Most people, however, feared a national government so the Framers, in order to align themselves with those who responded well to the idea of a federation of states, began calling themselves federalists and their opponents anti-federalists. Not only did this disguise their intentions but the term anti-federalist made opponents of the Constitution seem obstructionist and negative.
The series of meetings that led to the convention were engineered by men who did not like the Articles. They were part of an elite consensus that was forming in reaction to the many rebellions (black and white) and democratic tendencies among excluded people and it was their private meetings that led to the initiative for the Constitutional Convention. At every turn, the popular voice was absent, and elites were increasingly empowered. No special popular elections were held to select delegates. Instead, delegates to the Convention were selected by the state legislatures, who were already once removed from the limited electorate. Moreover, the Constitutional Convention had been called to amend the Articles only and any proposed changeshad to be approved by all the states before they were adopted. But the Framers defied these legal stipulations, abandoned their authorization to amend the Articles only, designed an entirely new centralized national government, and inserted in the Constitution that it should go into effect when ratified by only nine states. J. W. Burgess has stated that what the Framers actually did, stripped of all fiction and verbiage, was to assume constituent powers, ordain a constitution of government and liberty and demand a plebiscite thereon over the heads of all existing legally organized powers. Had Julius or Napoleon committed these acts, they would have been pronounced coup d'á‚átat.
The Constitution of the United States
A National SystemAt the most fundamental level the Constitution went beyond the Articles in the following way. The new Constitution (Article I, Sections 8 and 10) simply swept away the sovereignty of the states in the areas of war and treaty-making, coining money, emitting bills of credit, and impairing the obligation of contracts. These sections also placed the state militia under control of the national government, authorized the national government to tax directly and raise a national army and navy, and gave the national government the new powers to regulate commerce and establish a national currency. Article IV, Section 3 gave the national government the power to dispose of western territories. And to make clear the supremacy of the national government vis-á…á-vis the states, and Article III, Section 2 and Article IV stipulated that national laws, treaties, and judicial power are superior to those of the states.
The sweep of these changes is breath-taking. First, note that the national government was now in a position to protect and develop markets (and with a national army and navy this could be done forcibly), protect manufacturers, develop a capital market by paying creditors in full, raise revenue directly, and do all this without having to wait for the approval or compliance of the states. The ability of the states to help out the debtor or disadvantaged by emitting bills of credit or by modifying contracts was outlawed. Consequently, just as so many Framers had wanted,6 military force was now available and authorized to be used against recalcitrant states or insurgents. Quite plainly, political power at the local level had been significantly reduced. In fact, the Framers failed to provide any Constitutional guarantees for the lowest level of government, the municipalities...[where] political enthusiasm and activity of the American citizens had developed and flourished.7 military force was now available and authorized to be used against recalcitrant states or insurgents. Quite plainly, political power at the local level had been significantly reduced. In fact, the Framers failed to provide any Constitutional guarantees for the lowest level of government, the municipalities...[where] political enthusiasm and activity of the American citizens had developed and flourished. military force was now available and authorized to be used against recalcitrant states or insurgents. Quite plainly, political power at the local level had been significantly reduced. In fact, the Framers failed to provide any Constitutional guarantees for the lowest level of government, the municipalities...[where] political enthusiasm and activity of the American citizens had developed and flourished. In other words, the development of an economy based upon impersonal market relations and the rational self-interested individual could go forward with full swing.
In short, a major change occurred quickly. Power was shifted from the local and state levels to the national level. This meant that political power was now concentrated in not only a few hands but in those fewer hands that held considerable wealth and economic power. The new national system assured the commercial and financial interests...that ...potentially unpopular rules and practices would nevertheless be enforced reliably and consistently....The ability to change the economy, to deal with substantive public policy issues such as the distribution of wealth and fiscal and monetary measures, was effectively removed from popular control.8 With the erosion of a way of life based upon production for use and the encouragement of one based upon production for profit, the space for collective discussion, resistance, or non-compliance was drastically narrowed. Thus the function of the federal government was clarified. Its purpose was to protect property essential to a commercial economy (contracts, bonds, and credit) and promote the expansion and development of market relations. We may say then that the role of the government as established by the Constitution, at least implicitly, was that of an instrument of private power both in the political sense of limiting meaningful popular involvement and in the economic sense of imperial expansion. David Smith notes that the imperial organization designed to advance England's foreign trade, to protect her colonial interests in North America...was the parent...of American Federalism. With the erosion of a way of life based upon production for use and the encouragement of one based upon production for profit, the space for collective discussion, resistance, or non-compliance was drastically narrowed. Thus the function of the federal government was clarified. Its purpose was to protect property essential to a commercial economy (contracts, bonds, and credit) and promote the expansion and development of market relations. We may say then that the role of the government as established by the Constitution, at least implicitly, was that of an instrument of private power both in the political sense of limiting meaningful popular involvement and in the economic sense of imperial expansion. David Smith notes that the imperial organization designed to advance England's foreign trade, to protect her colonial interests in North America...was the parent...of American Federalism. With the erosion of a way of life based upon production for use and the encouragement of one based upon production for profit, the space for collective discussion, resistance, or non-compliance was drastically narrowed. Thus the function of the federal government was clarified. Its purpose was to protect property essential to a commercial economy (contracts, bonds, and credit) and promote the expansion and development of market relations. We may say then that the role of the government as established by the Constitution, at least implicitly, was that of an instrument of private power both in the political sense of limiting meaningful popular involvement and in the economic sense of imperial expansion. David Smith notes that the imperial organization designed to advance England's foreign trade, to protect her colonial interests in North America...was the parent...of American Federalism.9
Checks and BalancesOne indication of how poorly we understand our political system is that we celebrate the concept of checks and balances as a hallmark of democracy. It is not. Checks and balances limit public power (the government), especially the power of the people, and thereby expands private power (owners of productive property and capital) which is left largely unaccountable to the public. It is, if anything, a hallmark of the lack of democracy and reflects the Framers' admiration of Great Britain and their identification with imperial thinking. The Framers set for themselves the task of designing an imperial system that would be legitimized by the consent of the governed. In the context of eighteenth-century thinking, consent of the governed included constitutional monarchy where the monarch's powers were limited and where the government included an assembly elected by the people. But any influence in the government by common or inferior people raised the possibility that the poor could challenge the rich, public power could be used to challenge private power. Note Madison's remarks:
...as had been observed (by Mr. Pinckney) we had not among us those hereditary distinctions of rank which were a great source of the contests in the ancient governments as well as the modern States of Europe...We cannot, however, be regarded even at this time as one homogeneous mass....In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.In order to prevent common people from having an equal say in public affairs and to safeguard private power in general by limiting public power, the Framers chose to discard the arrangement under the Articles of Confederation where the important powers of government were vested in a single legislature and resurrect England's aristocratic system of checks and balances. The purpose of checks and balances was this: public power would be checked, especially the House of Representatives which was closest to the people. Moreover, the House of Representatives would be balanced by the interests of property by giving property owners a greater voice in two ways: 1) the Presidency and the Senate would be elected directly by property owners through the electoral college and state legislatures respectively, and 2) the Presidency and the Senate would be given more power than the House in the government. John Adams, who once stated, We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew more insolent to their masters, was the supreme advocate of checks and balances. Although he was not at the convention, many of the delegates shared his desire that the structure of the new government should follow closely on the British model.
In the British system, the House of Commons (common people or small property owners) was balanced by the House of Lords (aristocrats or large property owners) and the king. In this way, should wicked projects emerge from the lower house, such legislation could be checked by the upper house or if necessary by the executive, in this case the king. Again we can see that common people, in this model, are distrusted and that property owners are thought of as better or more virtuous. That most of the Framers shared these assumptions and used these terms is well-documented.
The relationship of the Presidency and the Senate to the Congress was intended to parallel the checks and balances built into the British system; property, argued the Framers, was the stabilizing force. People with property are conservative and cautious. People without property have nothing to lose and engage in foolish experiments.10 Therefore, the Framers chose to have an upper house or Senate which could check the House of Representatives, the lower house. The Senate would represent property by virtue of representing entire states (as Madison correctly noted a very large district such as a state takes in a greater variety of parties and interests making it more difficult for underclass people to sustain a majority, not to mention the greater and prohibitive campaign costs) and by having Senators elected by state representatives (who were far more connected to property than the general electorate). Senators would also be given longer terms than members of the House (six years as opposed to two).
This design reversed the popular trend toward unicameral (single chamber) legislatures, small districts, annual elections, and rotation in office. Stated Edmund Randolph, if the task of the delegates was to provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored, then, in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy: that some check therefore was to be sought for against this tendency of our governments: and that a good senate seemed most likely to answer the purpose.11 Historian Arthur Lovejoy concludes that the intention of the Framers in adding a senate to the legislative branch was to insure that the poor could never get a law passed which would be unfavorable to the economic interests of the rich. But for a general view, we need to come back to Madison, Father of the Constitution:
The landed interest, at present, is prevalent, but in process of time...when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small...will not the landed interests be overbalanced in future elections? and, unless wisely provided against, what will become of our government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.As Veron Parrington states, the revolutionary conception of equalitarianism, that asserted the rights of man apart from property and superior to property, did not enter into their thinking....12
Separation of Powers
Separation of powers refers to the fact that the Framers scattered each type of national power (legislative, judicial, and executive) among the various branches of government. For example, the President has the legislative power of the veto (Article I, Section 7), the Senate has the executive power of confirming certain appointments made by the President (Article II, Section 2), and the Congress and President are checked by judicial review (Article III, Section 2).13 The separation of powers accomplishes several things. First we see that it is a continuation of checks. Some of the checks are upon the other branches as well. One reason for this is that the Framers, as elites within the private economy, sought mainly to protect their individual freedom as property owners from state intrusion. So they checked the legislative branch as well as the other branches through the separation of powers to insure protection from a misguided executive (which very well could be an executive responding to the demands of the people). The point is that as the national government was purposefully made inefficient, it would leave private power, or the power of business or corporate elites untouched. As Charles Beard points out, None of the powers conferred by the Constitution on Congress permits a direct attack on property. Thus Madison argued in Federalist No. 51, The constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other - that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.
The check upon the executive branch by the legislative branch is not like the check by the other branches upon the legislative. It is not a distrust or an indictment of the virtue and wisdom of a class of poor people. It is a simple distrust of the government or public power and a belief that private or what we today would call corporate power or business is virtuous. Clearly, fear of the ability of common people to work their way through the legislature was far greater than the potential tyranny of the President. When asked how a system so inefficient could make any progress, Gouverneur Morris appears to have placed his faith in the paternalistic potential of the President: It is necessary...that the Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, against Legislative tyranny, against the great and wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose - the Legislative body.
The separation of powers was also intended to prevent the majority from carry[ing] into effect schemes of oppression, that is, the egalitarian projects many small farmers had in mind. It does this because a majority of common people who gain control of the House can easily be checked by men of property who are (or were) not directly elected by the people: the Senate (elected by state legislatures then, Article I, Section 3), the President (elected by an electoral college appointed by the states, Article II, Section 1), or the Judiciary (appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, Article II, Section 2). Here we find full expression given to Madison's well known defense of the Constitution in Federalist No. 10: Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unions with each other. Empowerment of common people was not one of the aims of the Framers.
RepresentationVeron Parrington notes that the Constitution represented the first written safeguard against tyranny, but it was aimed at the encroachments of agrarian majorities rather than at Tory minorities....An honest appeal to the people was the last thing desired by the Federalists....14 Similarly, J. Allen Smith has stated that [I]t was the almost unanimous sentiment of the convention that the less the people had to do with the government the better.15" name="t14 Similarly, J. Allen Smith has stated that [I]t was the almost unanimous sentiment of the convention that the less the people had to do with the government the better.15 Similarly, J. Allen Smith has stated that [I]t was the almost unanimous sentiment of the convention that the less the people had to do with the government the better. This is a terribly important point for it goes to the heart and soul of the Constitution. We know, for example, that the Framers understood that a very large segment of the voting population, perhaps a majority, had wanted paper money or tender laws. Yet in Article I, Section 10, the impairment clause which we noted above prevents states from emitting bills of credit or interfering with contracts, and therefore quite clearly violates popular if not majority sentiment on this point. The Framers, while hoping to incorporate a broad range of views, wanted to create a political system in which the views of the virtuous, more industrious, better people - those with established characters, the rich and wealth property owners, could easily dominate and overcome popular will when necessary. The Framers sought to design a political system that would end the opportunity of the bulk of small property owners to meet at the grassroots level, engage in prolonged discussions, and exercise considerable political influence. This was done through the creation of a system of representation in which, using Madison's words, the opulent minority would be protected from the majority by isolated compartments, refinement, enlarged spheres, and filtration.
Most people were not permitted to vote. The Framers, with some exceptions, particularly Franklin, wanted to restrict the suffrage to those who owned property. But they could not agree on how much or what kind of property should be counted. So in Article I, Section 2, they let the states decide. Women (except in New Jersey), slaves, Native Americans, and many poor people were excluded. One may say that all this has changed, that the exclusion of the majority reflected eighteenth-century thinking. And while it is true that no ethnic group or gender is legally barred from voting, the elitist principles that run through the Constitution and influence it at every turn to favor the propertied class still leave the people without a powerful voice. Just how little the people were to be consulted was framed in the following way by Madison: The danger of disturbing the public tranquility by interesting too strongly the public passions is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decisions of the whole society. While amendments to the Constitution might empower people superficially in the short-term, they do not change or alter its character, purpose, the general values which it embodies, or its fundamental design.16 Never has a U.S. president been elected by a majority of the nation's adult citizens. And, to a large degree, this is due to the fact that the Constitution was designed to discourage, not encourage, the participation of the majority.
The Father of the Constitution explains the meaning of representation in Federalist No. 10 this way: The effect of a representative system, as opposed to a democracy, is to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations...the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.... Understanding that the public good and private rights (or property rights) are equated for Madison, and understanding the value which the Framers placed upon economic development, privilege, and the linkage of individual freedom and affluence, we may conclude that one function of elected representatives is to guard the better people against the majority when the majority entertains ideas which challenge inequality, privilege, and/or private property. To put it more simply, representatives were never intended to be among us, carrying our views forward. They were intended (given the checks and balances, separation of powers, and the indirect election of the President and Senate) to be among the better people who are above us, who speak and think for us, and tell us what we need.
Whenever the people do make demands and become active, it is always a crisis for elites. The demands of the people at the time of the convention were described as excess democracy by Elbridge Gerry and rampant democracy by James Madison. We shall note in Chapter 5 that after a number of previously disaffected groups such as blacks, students, women, Chicanos, and Native Americans became politically active during the 1960s and 1970s, corporate elites referred to the fuller participation among disadvantaged constituencies as a form of distemper and a crisis of democracy. Elites, quite consistent with the values of the Framers, have always perceived the active political engagement of people without property as a crisis. John Quincy Adams, in a bit of understatement, reminds us that the Framers did not profess to be slavish adorers of our sovereign lords the people.17
The Majority Does Not RuleKenneth M. Dolbeare and Murray J. Edelman have identified several ways in which the Framers built into the Constitution layer upon layer of obstacles to simple majority rule because they feared the redistribution of property by the masses. In addition to the built-in checks and balances, separation of powers, the property-biased system of representation, they add: 1) Amendment of the Constitution is very difficult, requiring a vote of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states, (Article V); and 2) The electoral college is a device designed to give discretionary power to the elected delegates and deny the people direct choice of the President, (Article II, Section 1).18
Note also that the principle found in the Declaration of Independence that revolution is a right of people (That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.) has been eliminated altogether in the Constitution. To be sure, the Framers in 1776 only had the white male middle to upper classes in mind when they framed the right to revolt. The Constitution, however, not only eliminates any encouragement to revolt, it makes revolution virtually impossible. With the state militia under federal jurisdiction, with the creation of a national army, the authorization to suspend habeas corpus (or lock people up without giving a reason), and put down domestic insurrections, the risks entailed in challenging political authority are greatly enlarged.
Also, given the system of checks and balances and separation of powers, the Framers believed that the citizen was adequately safeguarded from the abuse of governmental power and therefore the citizen's right to revolt is made invalid. Remember this was the reason Sam Adams gave for suggesting that participants in Shays Rebellion ought to be killed on the spot. It is ironic, although not surprising, that the Framers entertained no safeguards against private power or what today is called corporate power. It is ironic also that the Framers would exaggerate to rather hysterical proportions the threat to their privileges posed by the legislative demands put forward by small farmers and the political participation of common people in general. Surely had any of them been enslaved or made to endure the discipline and despotism of the nineteenth-century factories, or the everyday abuse many citizens today experience on the job, they would have found their own justification of withdrawing the right to revolt, namely that the citizen is protected from public power, to be wholly irrelevant. In the words of one anti-federalist, because the national government would have its own army and would be able to command the state militia, the last Resource of a free People is taken away.19
Anti-federalist OppositionAlthough most common people were against the creation of a national government, opposition to the Constitution extended into all classes. Many slaveowners, for example, feared the creation of a national government, whose power was greater than the states, would be able to interfere with the private practice of human enslavement. In Connecticut the ideas of the nationalists were feared because they were:
founded on Principles Subvertive of a Republican Government Tending to Destroy that Equallity among the citisans which [is] the only permanent foundation on which it can be supported to throw an excessive Power, the constant attendant of property into the Hands of the Few, to cherish those anti-republican Principles & feelings which are now predominant in many of the states and finally to dissolve our present Happy and Benevolent Constitution & to erect on the Ruins, a proper Aristocracy: wherein the Body of the People are excluded from all share in the Government, and the Direction & management of the state is committed to the Great & Powerful alone.20General comments following the Convention were that the Framers had gone too far. The natural Course of Power is to make the many Slaves to the few. Another objected to the Constitution because the bulk of the people can have nothing to say to it. The government is not a government of the people. The men of Fortune would not feel for the Common People. An aristocratical tyranny would arise, in which the great will struggle for power, honor and wealth, the poor become a prey to avarice, insolence, and oppression. Even John Quincy Adams would write in his diary that the Constitution was calculated to increase the influence, power and wealth of those who have any already. In South Carolina, when the backcountry learned of ratification, the people had a Coffin painted black, which borne in funeral procession, was solemnly buried, as an emblem of the dissolution and internment of publick Liberty....
More specifically, anti-federalists felt that the House of Representatives had been made too weak and should control the legislative process as well as the executive and complained that it was now nothing but an assistant Aristocratical Branch. They thought that the President had been given too much power, that he was an elective king vested with power dangerous to a free people and that the electoral college was an aristocratic junto. They complained that the general structure seemed to verge too much toward the British plan, that the relation between the Senate and President looked too much like a king and a House of Lords, that it equaled an oligarchy, and that the House was nothing but a pretended concession to democracy.
They believed that In a free Government there never will be Need of standing Armies, that the Framers appropriated both the powers of the purse and sword because they knew this was not a free government, and that By far the greater part of the different nations, who have fallen from the glorious state of liberty, owe their ruin to standing armies.
And we find that criticisms of the Constitution were explicit with regard to its failure to respect democracy, although the term was used to mean a variety of political systems. Frequently anti-federalists said that they preferred a democratick system to an aristocratick and that the Constitution did not erect a Democratick or Republican, government where democracy was generally defined as a political system that gave space to the great body of the people, the middle and lower classes, as contrasted with the few men of wealth and abilities who comprised the natural aristocracy.21
It is interesting to note that our own complaints of an imperial presidency, that we feel powerless and that our votes do not count, that the military-industrial complex has too much power, that government seems distant and far away, or that corporations seem to dominate all aspects of our lives echo the complaints heard 200 years ago. It is not surprising. After all, it is still the same system, and in so many important respects the debate surrounding the adopting of the Constitution underlies contemporary class and racial divisions as well as debates over militarism, the environment, secret governments, and the spiritual well-being of our country.
RatificationThe majority of the people were against the Constitution. Not suprisingly, those who stood to gain from it directly, the wealthier and more professional, were enthusiastic. Before the Constitution was ratified, Hamilton noted that the supporters of the Constitution were the good will of the commercial interest...[who want a government] capable of regulating, protecting and extending the commerce of the Union...[and] the good will of most men of property who wish a government of the Union able to protect them against domestic violence and the depredations which the democratic spirit is apt make on property.... General Knox, in a letter to Washington, wrote, The new constitution is received with great joy by all the commercial part of the community. Numerous letters among elites share a similar conclusion. And it was clear that the Framers understood where the opposition came from and the nature of that opposition. Rufus King, a member of the Massachusetts ratifying convention wrote to Madison that the opposition arose chiefly from an opinion that is immovable, that...the system is the production of the rich and ambitious, that they discover its operations and that the consequences will be the establishment of two orders in the Society, one comprehending the opulent and great the other the poor and illiterate.
Keep in mind that the Framers, in order to overcome the majority opposition, first wrote into the Constitution that it would not have to be ratified by all the states to become law (as stipulated in the Articles) but that only nine states had to ratify it. That meant that as many as five states would have to oppose ratification in order for the Constitution to be rejected. The strategy of the Framers was to move quickly before opposition could organize properly. The first step was to get the approval of Congress (sitting in New York under the Articles) to approve the Constitution and to pass it on to ratifying conventions that would have to be selected. Charles Mee observes that before opposition could gather its forces...the plan was slipped dexterously past Congress. They did this by sending the Constitution to Congress (one-third of whom who were present had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention) only eight days after it had been signed. They also got Congress to put the words Resolved unanimously on the resolution calling for the ratifying conventions, giving the impression that Congress had supported the new Constitution unanimously. Richard Henry Lee, a member of Congress who opposed the Constitution, said that the Framers had stampeded the Congress and that they had begun the ratification process with a nasty piece of trickery. There was more to come.
Even before the Constitution had reached New York, some of the Framers in Philadelphia were busy at work trying to get the Pennsylvania state legislature or Assembly to quickly set up a ratifying convention before they adjourned, for their session was about to end. Opponents objected, arguing that there was no rush, that the people had not even seen the Constitution. Nineteen assemblymen who had supported (what was then considered) the radically democratic Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 decided to block the allies of the Framers by abstaining from the Assembly, thus preventing a quorum and forcing an adjournment. The delaying strategy worked for a time, but when news arrived the following day from New York that Congress had called for the states to select delegates for ratifying conventions, a federalist mob went into the homes of two of the more radical assemblymen and dragged them, protesting, through the streets of Philadelphia and into the Assembly hall, their clothes torn, their faces white with rage. One of the physically restrained assemblymen tried to escape but they barred his exit. They then voted to set the date for selecting the delegates to the ratifying convention.22
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, as Mee observes, Roving bands of supporters of the new constitution roamed the streets, banging on doors and lobbing rocks through windows.23 The Constitution was eventually ratified in Pennsylvania. Anti-federalists, in an address to the people, however, noted that members had been dragged to their seats and kept there against their wills, and so early a day was set for the election of delegates that many a voter did not know of it until it was passed...Of the seventy thousand freemen entitled to vote but thirteen thousand voted.
In Massachusetts, a less forceful but somewhat manipulative strategy was used by Constitutional supporters. When it appeared that the anti-federalists would easily reject the Constitution, federalists came up with a plan called a Conciliatory Proposition. Although the Framers had decided that there would be no second constitutional convention and that the ratification conventions were to simply ratify or reject the Constitution with no changes, the Conciliatory Proposition asked that amendments to the Constitution be proposed. The suggestion was that the amendments would be taken up as the first order of business for the new government. Knowing that their proposals were not binding, but believing that amending the Constitution was feasible, anti-federalists suggested nine amendments that would have, among other things, altered the federal government's power to tax and to govern elections. A proposal stating that Congress could not establish a company of merchants with exclusive advantages of commerce was also advanced. The strategy worked. The resistance was broken and Massachusetts ratified the Constitution. The proposed amendments were, for the most part, later pushed aside.24
A similar situation unfolded in Virginia when it was pointed out that Massachusetts had proposed amendments to be adopted at a later date. In long and very heated exchanges and with the outcome uncertain, the federalists, perhaps ingenuously, accepted every amendment put forth by the anti-federalists. The federalists won in Virginia by a vote of 89 to 79.
In New Hampshire, a majority of the delegates opposed the Constitution and they indicated that they would vote the way they had been instructed by their constituents even though they had begun to change their minds after having discussions with federalists. The federalists simply adjourned the convention and after a few months work were able to convert their opponents. The Constitution was supported by a vote of fifty-seven to forty-seven.
In New York, two-thirds of the selected delegates were opposed to the Constitution. The strength of the opposition in New York had moved Madison, Hamilton, and Jay to write the now famous Federalist Papers urging ratification of the Constitution. In any case, the federalist were able to secure yet another victory (by a vote of thirty to twenty-seven), this time by promising to work at once to call a second constitution convention, at which the Constitution could be revised.
In Maryland, the Constitution was ratified, again with the proposed opportunity for amendments. North Carolina, however, rejected the Constitution and in Rhode Island, where small farmers had gained control of the state, federalists faced formidable opposition. There, copies of the Constitution were distributed among the towns to give the people ample time to study it and unlike all the other states, the question of ratification was submitted directly to the people (who were enfranchised). The result was that 237 votes were cast in favor of the Constitution; 2,708 were cast against it.
In the end the Constitution was ratified by eleven states. But we should note that two states rejected it while in three other states, as measured by delegate strength, voters disapproved of it. Therefore, it appears that there were at least five states (enough to block ratification) in which there was majority opposition among the active enfranchised population (which was a minority of the adult population). The emphasis on the active voter is important here because the active voter tended to be more conservative. Ratifying conventions were held in the capitals which were mostly coastal towns where merchants and professionals were more numerous and prominent. Rural communities, given the property restrictions, their self-contained spirit and their resentment toward merchant and planter elites, and the cost of travel, often did not send delegates to the conventions. Moreover, their participation rates in delegate elections were low. In Maryland, for example, there were 25,000 eligible voters. Only 6,000 voted in the delegate selection process for the ratification convention and 4,000 of them were from Baltimore. In a study of voter participation and eligibility at the time, Charles Beard concludes that it seems a safe guess to say that not more than 5 percent of the population in general...expressed an opinion one way or another on the Constitution...[and] it is highly probable that not more than one-fourth or one-fifth of the adult white males took part in the election of delegates to the state conventions. If anything, this estimate is high.25
A Great Compromise?The notion that the Constitution was the result of great compromises suggests, quite inaccurately, that there was great diversity and great debate at the convention. We have seen that the movement toward the Constitutional Convention resembled more the scheming of an elitist cabal than a popular movement anxious to correct the defects of the Articles of Confederation. The Great Compromise that historians refer to is the compromise between the large states which sought (in the Virginia Plan) to base congressional representation on population. It was the Madison-Hamilton conception of a very strong central government in which the states were reduced to the level of provinces. The small states presented the New Jersey Plan which was much more a simple modification of the Articles. There would be no Senate and the states would be represented equally in the unicameral Congress, much the way it was at the time under the Articles. The Great Compromise was the acceptance by the Madison-Hamilton wing of the notion of equal state representation in the Senate. Thus each state is equally represented in the Senate and in the House, state representation is based upon population. We must also note that it was in the context of this great compromise that the decision was made to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of figuring out the population of the slave states.
The significance of the compromise was that the nationalist cabal that had wanted a strong central state ever since the War of Independence could not quite achieve the kind of national system they had envisioned, at least not entirely. Even among a convention of nationalist minded delegates there was strong sentiment for the idea of federalism in the sense of confederation. Therefore, limited sovereignty of the states was preserved and in at least one congressional chamber there was state equality. Much significance is attached to this compromise because it was around this issue that there was great emotion and division among the delegates. Had a compromise not been worked out, it is quite probable that the convention would have broken up.
But around issues that separated rich from poor, white from black, and men from women, there was considerable agreement. There was no need for compromise when it came to deciding that the suffrage would be restricted to white men with property. There was no need for compromise regarding the unusual authority given to the national government to tax directly, to guarantee contracts, to restore public credit, to regulate commerce, to promote the general welfare (market expansion), to raise a national army, to suspend habeas corpus during periods of rebellion, to forcibly put down domestic insurrections, or to use force to compel states to comply with congressional edicts. Indeed, there was a shared understanding that the use of force was a necessary feature of the kind of government they had in mind. Stated George Washington, We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our Confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures that are best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power. The idea that there was a need for a federal bill of rights was rejected, unanimously.
And that is the rub. There was no debate over whether or not it was the right of the better, more virtuous people to decide what our interests and needs are. There was no debate over the fugitive slave law (Article IV, Section 2). There was no debate over the perceived need to check the democratic tendencies of common people. The reason for the Constitution was to empower people of property over common people. Indeed, our definition of self-government and freedom have become linked, if not equated, to the interests of the corporation. Stated President Carter during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, on the battlefield of energy...we can seize control again of our common destiny...every gallon of oil [saved] gives us more freedom...solutions to our energy crisis can also hep us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in out country....We are talking about the United States of America and those who count this country out as an economic superpower are going to find out just how wrong they are. Spoken like a true Framer.
Finally property owners had secured a document, the Constitution, that would permit them to push ahead with their vision of vast state sponsored markets, expanded state sponsored trade, state assisted development of cheap labor and capital, and of state assisted accumulation of material abundance. Property owners were now free from King George, the Catholic Church, from rebellious small farmers, from slaves, people without property with levelling tendencies, and debtors who would violate their contracts; in short, property owners were now free from personal relations and the moral constraints that flow from them. Property owners were now free to pursue a fully rationalized, calculating, self-interested quest for empire which, of course, from their point of view was the simple unfettered exercise of self-government. Thomas Jefferson captured the idea quite nicely: I am persuaded no constitution was never before as well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.
The point of course is that if you wish to become part of the self-governing class, accumulate property. That is your freedom. That is the American dream and by all accounts Lee Iacocca stands as an example of the kind of opportunity the Constitution affords the common person. But there are other visions of opportunity which conflict with those of empire and the kind of self-government which accommodates it. They form the basis of oppositional politics today as they did then. Some anti-federalists advanced alternatives to the Constitution, alternatives which they argued embodied true federalist principles. They said, why don't we have something more like the Swiss Confederation or the United Dutch Provinces. They had local liberties, virtuous citizens, a republican self-defense coupled with a love of peace. They are not powerful nations but republicanism on a small scale may avoid the political rule by a few that comes with continental expansion. And then they asked of the Framers, What, fellow citizens, are your true aims: are they liberty and republicanism; or are they, perhaps, expansion and glory?26
Chapter 31. William Appleman Williams, Empire As A Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), viii, 43.
2. Charles L. Mee, Jr., The Genius of the People (New York: Harper & Row) 284.
3. See Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation, in Earl Latham, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1956), 15-19.
4. Gordon S. Wood, Democracy and the Constitution, How Democratic Is the Constitution? Robert A. Goldwin and William A Schambra, eds. (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1980), 12.
5. Jackson Turner Main, The Antifederalists (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961), 105.
6. See Andrew C. McLaughlin, The Confederate Period and the Federal Convention, in Latham.
7. Margit Mayer and Margaret A. Fay, The Formation of the American Nation-State, Kapitalistate, No.6. Fall 1977, 72.
8. Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Linda Medcalf, The Dark Side of the Constitution, in John F. Manley and Kenneth M. Dolbeare, The Case Against the Constitution (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1987), 128-130. Dolbeare and Medcalf are making these claims in the context of the translation which Hamilton made of the Constitution into financial and legal institutions.
9. David Smith, The Convention and the Constitution (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), 13.
10. Vernon L. Parrington, The Great Debate, in Latham, 63.
11. Quoted by Mee, 111-112.
12. This and the Madison quote are from Parrington, 63,64.
13. The issue of judicial review was not settled until Marbury v. Madison in 1803.
14. Parrington, 66, 61.
15. Quoted by Dolbeare and Medcalf, 124.
16. Amendments 15 and 19 to the Constitution broadened the franchise considerably. They stated that the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged<193>on account of race (Amendment 15) and on account of sex. (Amendment 19) This appears to significantly alter the racism and sexism of the Constitution and certainly these amendments are steps in that direction. But notice the language, shall not be denied<193>on account of. Nowhere does it say that blacks or women or even whites shall be guaranteed the right to vote, just that whatever requirements the state decides that one must meet in order to vote cannot be explicitly based upon race or sex. Therefore, voting is still a privilege granted by the state for which we must qualify and because the language of the amendments are negatively (shall not be denied) instead of positively (women and people of color shall be guaranteed the right), there is ample opportunity for discrimination based upon race and sex. For example, the poll tax and the literacy test (abolished because of the Civil Rights movement) while they did not explicitly prohibit any specific group from voting and therefore did not directly violate Amendment 15, was used intentionally to prevent many blacks and poor people from voting throughout most of this century. Racism, sexism, and classism is still at the heart of the Constitution and will be until democratic participation is specifically guaranteed.
17. Michael J. Cozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 75, 113, 114.
18. Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Murray J. Edelman, American Politics (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1974), 253, 254.
19. Main, 147.
20. All quotes from anti©federalists unless otherwise specified are drawn from Main, Chapters V-VII.
21. In addition to Main, a good source on antiªfederalist sentiment is Ralph Ketcham, The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates (New York: New American Library, 1986).
22. See Mee's account of the ratification process.
23. Mee, 288, 289.
24. Many of the less radical amendments advanced under these circumstances did contribute to the mounting pressure for a Bill of Rights. See Chapter 4.
25. See Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), Chapter IX
26. Sheldon S. Wolin, The People's Two Bodies, Democracy, January, 1981, p. 22.
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