Happy 225th!

[ Posted Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 – 17:41 UTC ]

Yesterday was a momentous occasion, but I was steeped in crass horserace politics, and so failed to mention it. Two hundred and twenty-five years ago yesterday, the United States Constitution was adopted by the convention called to create it.

Americans today tend to romanticize the entire Founding Fathers era, and thus tend to think of the Constitution being handed down on stone tablets, complete with the first ten amendments. Instead, it was the product of four months worth of discussion and debate. This debate was closed to the public and the press, but reports which leaked out indicated that many compromises had to be struck to get a majority to support the new governmental structure.

It took another year and a half for enough states to ratify the document, and during this time period the debate raged far and wide among the public. The first political divide within America appeared and deepened during this period. Even before there were what we would today call national political parties, there were two factions arguing the "New Constitution" issue. The Federalists were pro-Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists were against it.

The Anti-Federalist argument started with "the Articles of Confederation just need a little reform, not wholesale replacement," but when state after state began ratifying the new document, the Anti-Federalists switched their argument to lean more on a new strategy: the Constitution, as written, was woefully inadequate to prevent a new American aristocracy, monarchy, or other tyranny from later developing. So they demanded changes.

This is the ironic point which is mostly lost on commenters today who brandish their concept of "what the Founders really meant" in the Constitution (from both sides of today's political aisle) is that even back then there were two sides arguing the issue, and in order to attain general agreement the Constitution almost immediately required major modifications. It was not perfect, to put this another way, and was not in fact written on holy tablets. It needed revision to work.

An Anti-Federalist from this time period laid out all the things he saw lacking in the proposed Constitution (these are just excerpts):

There is no bill of rights in it.

Although different religions are allowed to set in Congress, yet there is no liberty given to the people to perform religious worship according to the dictates of their consciences.

There is a door opened for the Jews, Turks, and Heathen to enter into public office and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.

There is nothing said about the people being allowed the freedoms of speech and the liberty of the press.

It divides Congress into three branches, as President, Senate, and a House of Representatives, which will be a great clog to business and a hindrance to the making of laws with expedition and dispatch.

It deprives men that are endowed with the wisdom that is from above from entering into Congress unless they have arrived at a certain age and have abode in the states a certain quantity of time.

It augments the members of Congress and makes the government more expensive.

It deprives the people of the liberty of choosing their delegates to Congress annually, and of recalling them when they please.

It almost annihilates the state governments, and deprives their legislation of the power of making their own laws.

It makes no provision against the keeping a standing army in a time of peace.

It deprives the people of the power of levying and collecting their own taxes.

It vests Congress with power to tax all the states, to send forth collectors, and enforce the payment of taxes by a standing army.

It vests Congress with power to run the people into debt by borrowing money of foreign nations upon the credit of the United States, and it doth not oblige the members of that assembly to render any account of the expenditure of the same, if they shall see fit to secret it.

As you can see, some of these arguments are laughably out of date, and some still resonate today. One of these arguments is actually a good one that I've never heard made in the modern era -- the age restrictions for Congress and the presidency are arbitrary and unnecessary.

In any case, we all know how this played out. We got not only the United States Constitution, but we also got the Bill of Rights the Anti-Federalists were demanding as well. From the very start, the Constitution was a document of political compromise, and from the very start, two political factions argued over the meaning of the text, and what was necessary to make it work.

So while yesterday was the anniversary of the finalization of the drafting of the United States Constitution, don't forget also that there were months and months of bitter arguing before the country accepted this draft. And acceptance was used as leverage to immediately amend the document to assuage the "anti" faction. As a result, we not only have the Constitution itself, but also the Bill of Rights. Our first political compromise turned out to be one of our very best, to put it another way.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Happy 225th!”

  1. [1] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    I like the paradoxicality inherent in your overview here. The "dialogue"ongoing today is neither new, nor exceptional, either in its basic premises, nor its intensity - - back then both sides knew Thomas Hobbes' groundbreaking writing on Power and whether it should be feared and sanctioned, or revered and sanctified,
    much as we've seen since the Arab Spring and its fallout. They would have grasped the complexities on our TV screens readily. Thanks for some clear thinking and some savvy background to get us under the current sloganeering.

  2. [2] 
    LewDan wrote:

    I always seem to be reminding people that this nation wasn't founded to promote democracy, it was founded to promote self-determination. Democracy, or rather a version of it, was the method, after much debate and years of compromise, we determined to use to exercise our self-determination.—And that its taken our democracy two centuries of tweaking to arrive at this point—and its still a work in progress.—A fact that seems lost on most when it comes to the emergence of new democracies, to judge by people's expectations.

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