AMERICA'S EARLIEST DAYS
THE CONSTITUTION: THE SAVIOR OF THE UNITED STATES
WAS THE GLORIOUS EXPERIMENT TO FAIL?
THE CONSTITUTION: THE SAVIOR OF THE UNITED STATES
A program for
The Black Warrior River Chapter
Sons of the American Revolution
Presented by Thomas P. Shumaker
16 February, 1997
We had earlier noted that after the siege of Yorktown, military activity in the 'Colonies' had subsided, while the English government considered its future course. A peace offer was extended and curtailment of hostilities allowed for the formal Peace Treaty, with negotiations completed in September, 1783. As a final tribute to the Patriots who negotiated the Treaty, we include (last page) a map showing the original proposals, from which their efforts started. The "United States" would have been a long, skinny country, its western boundary following the Appalachians and with British, Indian and Spanish COUNTRIES between it and the Mississippi River!!
For all practical purposes, after Yorktown the 'Colonists' had won their war and were a free and independent, sovereign nation. The Colonies continued to be bound together by the "Articles of Confederation' that had unified them during the war. Now, with all of the world watching, and particularly those headed by autocratic, dynasties of Kings and Emperors, smugly expected the new country to collapse into political and economic chaos and, as it sank into anarchy, to cry out for a Dictator, or a 'King', or an 'Emperor,' to save it!!!
Being justifiably proud of their military success, the 'States' proposed no change in the arrangement that kept them unified, and proceeded on to their destiny under the 'Articles of Confederation.' As evidence of their actions, the "First President of the United States in Congress Assembled;' was NOT George Washington, but was John Hanson, elected 5 November, 1781!
On 28 November, 1781, the Congress called George Washington to Philadelphia, there to receive official and heart-felt thanks for the services he had rendered. After an enthusiastic reception and escort to Independence Hall, Washington responded with his congratulations to "His Excellency," the First President!
But the new 'United States of America' was, in reality, a total failure. It was deeply in debt, not only to foreign governments, but to its own merchants and manufacturers and, worst of all, to the soldiers who had fought and bled for its freedom. There was no program to pay these debts, or even the interest ('debt service') due on them, as there was no provision in its 'Articles of Confederation' to levy any taxes, an extension of the same problem that had existed during the war.
The 'free navigation of the Mississippi,' as had been established in the Treaty of Paris, was denied by the Spaniards, still holding the lower banks of the River. The British, cynical as ever about its newly freed 'colonies,' still occupied 'Western' lands, in audacious violation of the terms of the treaty. The United States government was completely helpless to enforce its unquestionable rights, or even to protest, as it had neither Army nor Navy and there was no way to get one! There was no money to pay them and no basis for raising troops. Those who had served had bitter memories of their earlier treatment.
There was no financial system, no way to borrow money in order to invest in enterprises that would provide jobs and opportunities for the people. The currency they had issued, the "Continental Dollars," was so worthless as to be used as wallpaper! Economic activity was at an extremely low level and if there had not been an absorptive agricultural percentage of the population, there would have been a high level of 'unemployment.' The true selling price of land was DROPPING, as an indication of the economic crisis. Again, nothing was being done to provide relief.
The 'Americans' were beginning to realize that their 'Articles of Confederation' would not serve as a basis for a government which would provide solutions for the problems that the new 'Republic' would face now and in its future. The fundamental weakness of the "Articles" was that they were geared to GOVERNMENTS dealing with each other, where the only resolution of a disagreement was by use of force. This ignored the necessity for a representative government to be involved with PEOPLE and to operate in an atmosphere where disagreements would be resolved by a judiciary acting within the legal restraints acceptable to the people.
The real distinction then would come down to the reality that a GOVERNMENT, assuming to exercise sovereign power, is impatient of and will not accept any form of control; where an INDIVIDUAL is willing to concede fair play, reasonableness and charity, and is willing to accept the self-discipline that would be required.
Also, were the 'Colonies' to allow the 'Association' to dissolve into separation, then each one of them would be vulnerable to solicitation by foreign governments, whose inducements would include favoring one 'Colony' over another, increasing jealousy and animosity to the extent of military action, and an irreversible end of the "United States.
It was a recognition of these facts and their stark reality that had the Americans of 1787 realize that, after more than five years of drifting, they absolutely must revise the agreement that had made them a nation. It was not a casual proposal---it was their last chance before disastrous failure! And, in typically 'democratic' fashion, there were many who opposed any change in the 'Articles of Confederation.' For example, Benjamin Franklin, newly elected President of the Pennsylvania Council, noted that his State "has had plentiful crops... .our working people are all employed and get high wages; are well fed and well clad."
Although the Capital had been moved to New York, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia. With the meeting set for 14 May, 1787, it received a quorum on 25 May, when it organized itself. Benjamin Franklin, at the age of eighty one, was by far the oldest and, with Washington, the most famous.
George Washington was the unanimous choice as President of the Convention and he promptly proposed and had adopted a rule of secrecy upon all of the proceedings. It is very likely that this rule was what made possible the Constitution! There were to be no public statements by any member about any matter discussed. This ban extended to post-Convention publication of minutes or recollections of its proceedings, with the ban lasting for the lifetimes of the Members. With two exceptions, Luther Martin of Maryland and George Mason of Virginia, the instructions were followed and it would be a half-century before the proceedings were disclosed when James Madison published his "Debates."
The wonderful advantage of this 'code of silence' was that a Member, highly prejudiced over an item and who was at a deadlock, could, for the good of the country accept a compromise. Such an action would be impossible today as with the cameramen and charming 'anchormen of all five hundred channels screaming at each delegate as he left the Hall, it would be political suicide to indicate the faintest change in a previously recorded opinion. Pray God that there will not be a Constitutional Convention in our time!
The Convention was not meeting to create a Constitution from thin air. It had available to the Members, and many had already studied, at least twenty-two earlier attempts at a 'constitution,' going all the way back in time to the Athens of Pericles, nearly five hundred years before Christ! What they were seeking was a workable plan of checks and balances, such as would automatically operate to prevent a seizure of power by any single function. By carefully distinguishing the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary as the three base functions, it proposed that each of them be responsive to the other two and that there be a clear separation of their duties and authority.
Present with the delegates were their local and State biases and prejudices, along with a powerful desire for the independence of each State from outside interference's. Another fear, particularly of the smaller States, was that the larger States, with their population advantage, would have proportionately larger representation in the legislature and would dominate. The 'smaller States' were adamant about equal representation as a State. They were opposed by those, including Franklin, who had hoped for a uni-cameral Legislature. As the issue arrived at an impasse, the proposal, again from a Committee headed by Franklin, accepted the bi-cameral arrangement of a 'House of Representatives' made up proportional to population; and a 'Senate', with two members from each State.
Another question, 'How to support religious denominations?' came from the fact that the greatest majority of the Convention Members were from a background where the government ALWAYS supported the religion of its choice. There was no question of "Separation of Church and State" but only the practical matter of how would the distribution of funds be made in a fair manner? As they discussed the large number of denominations in the new nation, and the changes in numbers of each that would occur, they realized that it would be quite impossible to devise an equitable formula. Again, it was Franklin, acting as a senior philosopher, who observed that "if any denomination was worthy, it would arrange its own support." With this, there were only two places in the 'completed' Constitution where religion is mentioned and then only to deny any denominational requirement for governmental service.
The work of the Convention was completed on Monday, 17 September, 1787. The written copy was signed by thirty eight Delegates, besides Washington, in geographical order from New Hampshire to Georgia, and attested by William Jackson, the Convention Secretary.
The Constitution Convention hastened to put a copy of their work in the hands of each of the thirteen States, so that its ratification could be gained as quickly as possible. They proposed that each State appoint its own 'Constitutional Convention' and act upon approval.
It was now that the secrecy ban, imposed during its creation, served to fuel suspicion and to have there be an overwhelming disapproval of the proposed Constitution!! It is often surprising to us today, to realize how bitter was the opposition to adopting the Constitution, and that if there had been a popular vote taken, it would have been badly defeated.
From September, 1787, the last State's action was in mid-1790, when Rhode Island very, very reluctantly, gave its approval. In the interim, the three smaller States of Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia quickly gave their approval. (Nine State approvals were required.) The key States of Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York became political battlegrounds, with 'anti-Constitution' forces using every political trick in the books to delay and to reject the Constitution. It took education about (the "Federalist Papers", for example) and knowledge of the work to have opinions change.
The positions of those who opposed were, essentially, from two points of view. One was that it would create a powerful central government that would destroy the sovereignty of the States. A second position was that it had not provided adequate protection to the individual citizen; this would be answered by having a second Convention, that would supplement the original with the ten Amendments that constitute the "Bill of Rights."
The Constitution was adopted by a margin of eighteen individual votes among the Thirteen States. If nine votes had changed, it would have been rejected!! This contrasts with the myth of 'unanimity' that has grown up over the more than two centuries since it became the foundation of our government.
One opinion of the Convention's work, from its senior delegate, well sums it up:
"Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such:
because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form
of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered
For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint
wisdom, you inevitably assemble with these men all their prejudices, their
passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish
views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore
astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection
as it does......I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better
and because I am not sure that it is not the best.!!"
This is the magnificent legacy we have inherited!!!