Monday, November 23, 2015

I'm Always Thankful for the Constitution, But Did the Founding Fathers Ultimately Fail Us?

Gouverneur Morris
Through the muggy summer of 1787, up to 55 delegates from the 13 original colonies met in the State House in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, which were weak and weren't working. Once they were in the room together, they locked the doors and closed the windows and began to innovate. What finally emerged in September was a new Constitution for the "Union of States."

Some of the men in that room were outraged at the novel direction things were taking. They were openly and red-facedly opposed to the whole new enterprise, and some of them -- like feisty little Ellbridge Gerry -- refused to sign the finished document. They had their reasons. They were afraid of the power being given a central government; many were disturbed there was no Bill of Rights (which would come very quickly after ratification); a handful hated that the text did not condemn and outlaw slavery; some were outraged that God was not mentioned, credited, and coopted. They were nervous. They were trying something wholly untested before, and they had plenty of skin in the game.

But not bare skin in that hot room. They wore heavy wool garments, and the windows were closed (to prevent easedropping) during the hottest, muggiest, most punishing months of a Philadelphia summer. Their passions rose as high as the temperature, and they shouted at one another and insulted one another, but eventually passed by majority votes some 23 "resolves," including the wholly unheard-of idea of "three branches of government."

On September 8, 1787, they gave those 23 resolutions to the "Committee of Style and Arrangement," for the purpose of turning those statements into a text that was sufficiently explicit enough to function and sufficiently vague enough to breathe into the future.

The Committee was mainly young. Alexander Hamilton was 30 years old; Rufus King, 32; Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, 35; James Madison of Virginia, 36. The oldest member, Dr. William Samuel Johnson, the president of Columbia College, was 60, so he was named chair of the committee.

But Gouverneur Morris really wrote the thing. His Preamble still rings: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

By agreement of the Constitutional Convention, ratification by at least nine states would be required via state conventions. As those conventions started to take place, beginning in Pennsylvania, vocal opposition to the whole project ranged from ferocious to sometimes violent throughout the 13 former colonies of the Crown. In Pennsylvania, before a ratification convention could even be planned, 19 anti-Constitutionalists ("Antifeds") locked themselves up in a Philadelphia house, depriving the state assembly of a quorum. A mob of Pennsylvania "Feds," pro-Constitutionalists, broke down the door of the house and forcibly carted two of the abstainers to the meeting, thus establishing a quorum. Later, after Pennsylvania ratified the document, Antifeds, armed with clubs, attacked and beat one of the original signers, James Wilson, almost to death.

A Baptist preacher in North Carolina, a candidate for the state's ratification convention, told a meeting of frontier parishioners to fear a central government: "…an army of 50,000 or perhaps 100,000 men will … sally forth [from the Capitol] and enslave the people, who will be gradually disarmed." Sound familiar?

Some of the ratification votes were perilously close. In Pennsylvania, the margin for ratification was comfortable enough -- 46-23. But in Massachusetts, with a whopping 355 convention delegates elbowing each other with Puritan malice, ratification passed by only 19 votes, 187-168. New Hampshire ratified by a vote of 57-46. Virginia came in at 89-79, with fiery old Patrick Henry setting fire to the air and leading the Antifeds in very stiff opposition.

Eventually, even New York and Rhode Island joined the Union, New York by a vote of 30-27 (holy crap!). Rhode Island had been the bitch state all along, had stubbornly refused to even send delegates to Philadelphia in the first place, but Rhode Island finally capitulated and joined the other 13 on May 29, 1790, almost three full years after the original composition of the document in the City of Brotherly Love.

Like the *woman said, "miracle at Philadelphia."

George Mason, the Virginia planter and a member of the Constitutional Convention, did not sign the final document. He feared the form of government would produce a noxious oligarchy. I fear he was right, but perhaps not for the reasons he foresaw.

Rich men are in the way of owning this government, but I think not because of some inherent flaw in our founding document. Cannot I blame the Supreme Court for (1) describing corporations as corpuscles with the unalienable rights of men and women and (2) equating money with speech? If our government has become the wholly owned subsidiary of men like the Kochs, of men like Art Pope, of operatives like Karl Rove, can I not condemn the five bespoke men on the Supreme Court who have enabled the purchase?

How could James Madison and the other Philadelphia brethren foresee the perversions of money in their grand design? Even George Mason did not prophesy a Supreme Court majority that would exercise its biases with such broad destruction of democracy.

They invented the Supreme Court as a check and balance on the Congress. But where is the check and balance on a partisan majority on the Court? Through the election of presidents, who must appoint the judges? Through the election of a Congress with the courage to rise against money and erect effective barriers?

Maybe a new revolution will come against the power of wealth, but maybe not in my limited lifetime.

*Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787


Anonymous said...

To which I say, "Amen!" Nicely put, Jerry.

Anonymous said...

They didn't fail us, we failed them.