Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Back When Politicians Were Plain and Honest

Richard Beeman. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House, 2009.

The Revolution against a strong King left many Americans supporting a weak government. Many Americans wanted to keep governance as much a local concern as possible.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union had been constructed soon after independence was declared. The Articles were more a peace treaty establishing an alliance between the states that kept state sovereignty. It did not allow for the government to tax states. It required the unanimous agreement of all 13 state legislatures to enact an amendment. It did not create an executive position. It issued money the states then refused to back and thus become worthless. The states themselves were economically hard pressed to help finance and provide supplies to the army. British military errors contributed to a struggling American Army’s success.

Robert Morris was viewed by Congress as the only person capable of handling the nation’s finances. Morris insisted on also handling international matters, and after some dissent in Congress, Congress agreed to what Morris requested. Morris thus functionally was Prime Minister.

Morris used his own wealth and his financial connections to improve the nation’s credit rating. Inflation ceased spiraling upwards. Morris and Benjamin Franklin helped obtain a $5.9 million loan from France. John Adams helped obtain a $2 million loan from Holland.

Morris worked hard to create a nationwide 5% tax on imported goods. 12 state legislatures agreed. Yet the 1782 elections created an anti-central government legislature in Rhode Island that killed the proposal.

With no ability to raise revenues, our nation was unable to pay soldiers. Soldiers did not have blankets for winter and they were barely fed. Soldiers were threatening to undertake an uprising. Morris sided with the angry troops, which upset Washington. Washington went to the troops and calmed them and went to Congress to argue for their pay.

Washington was popular. Had he attempted to become a benevolent dictator, he may have been able to garner the public support to do so.

The Treaty of Peace with England was signed in 1783. This allowed the army to disband. Washington resigned as Commander in Chief and returned to his farm as a private citizen.

Congress did little, especially since it had difficulties even obtaining a quorum. Loans had to be repaid. Defaulting to European powers was not an option. Even Rhode Island realized the seriousness of keep financial credibility and the Rhode Island legislature joined in supported import taxes. This time, New York, which had a state goods tax, feared a national tax would harm its competitive position, and its legislature killed the import tax proposal.

An uprising occurred in Massachusetts in 1786. Destitute farmers were having their farms foreclosed due to their inability to pay taxes or repay loans. Farmers seized several country courthouses. There were fears this Shay’s Rebellion would seek reunification with Great Britain.

The Continental Congress realized they had no ability to raise federal troops to fight this rebellion. Governor James Bowdoin of Massachusetts created a private militia organized through $20,000 in private contributions. Four rebels were killed and the rest, who likely were composed of several hundred men rather than the reported 15,000 men, dispersed.

The states bickered with each other, sometimes violently, over issues of unfair competition, navigation rights, etc. !2 delegates met at the Annapolis Convention to discuss creating a strong central government. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison argued for creating a new government plan in place of the Articles of Confederation. They presented their plan for a Constitutional Convention to a reluctant Continental Congress in New York. Some delegates believed Congress did not have the right to create such a Convention. By a one vote majority over the opposition, a Convention in Philadelphia was approved.

The Continental Congress stated the Philadelphia convention was to only propose revisions of the Articles of Confederation. Approval of the Constitution’s proposed revisions would have to be approved by Congress and all the state legislatures. James Madison, Edmund Randolph, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Robert Morris, and Alexander Hamilton, though, were planning something revolutionary.

Robert Morris wanted a government that would help its businesses grow. James Wilson was frustrated there was no ability to raise and pay for an army.

For six days a week, over four months, in 1787, 55 delegates from the 13 states met in the Pennsylvania State House chambers in Philadelphia to debate and form a Constitution. It was a document forged from dissent and compromise based upon that era’s political knowledge and limitations thereof, as there was little prior history to predict who it would work. Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania, noted of the Constitution that “while some have boasted it as a work from Heaven, others have given is a less righteous origin. I have reasons to believe that it is the work of plain, honest men.”

The Constitution was forged by delegates worried that the nation was falling apart without one. A new governmental entity was pushed by delegates George Washington of Virginia, James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of New York, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania. The author explains one should “appreciate not only the extraordinary achievements of the Founding Fathers, but also the conflict, contingency, and uncertainty that marked their deliberations.”

The Constitution was written with much uncertainty as to what its future was and with uncertainty among the delegates as to what the words meant. It was a document wrote with patriotic faith in attempts to form a “more perfect union” even as they admitted the document itself was not perfect. It was also a document they expected to change over time.

Keys players in these events were James Madison, who worked hard to persuade Delegates to realize something other than amending the Articles of Confederation was necessary; George Washington of Virgina who attended reluctantly and said little but attended every day and won respect for presiding with respect; and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania whose philosophy and comments for strong harmonious national unity were widely respected and thus were influential. Key shapers of the Constitution were Gouverneur Morris who strongly supported and frequently spoke in favor of a national government; James Wilson, who spoke expertly on law and politics; Roger Sherman of Connecticut who often helped formed compromises on key divisive issues; and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who defended slavery. Important figures in these events included William Paterson of New Jersey who supported the interests of smaller states; Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts who skillfully presided over parts of the debates; John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who participated often in debates; Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut who assisted in reaching compromises; John Rutledge of South Carolina who offered an early Constitution proposal; Alexander Hamilton whose argued intelligently for a strong Constitution yet offended some small states’ Delegates; and Robert Morris whose financial was important. Those who objected to the Constitution were Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who was consistently critical of the idea of a Constitution from the beginning to the end of these deliberations and did not sign the document; Luther Martin who left before debates had concluded; New York Delegates Robert Yates and John Lansing who defended the interests of their state against a document that would weaken it and who left early to prevent New York from having a quorum to vote on many matters; and George Mason who argued the Constitution should contain a Bill of Rights and who did not sign the Constitution because it failed to include such rights.

Arrived delegates met privately while awaiting the arrival of others. During these informal discussions, James Madison spoke of his ideas for a strong bicameral national legislature with veto power other the state legislatures. A state’s population and wealth would determine its national legislative representation. Pennsylvania delegates argued against giving each state an equal number of representatives.

South Carolina’s delegates were all kinship relatives and slave owners. They were John Rutledge, Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, Charles Pinckney, and Pierce Butler.

Most states instructed their delegates to cast a vote for their state only upon agreement of a majority of their delegation. Maryland allowed that only one delegate present could vote for Maryland, which suited Maryland’s delegation as they often had just one Delegate present.

The Pennsylvania State House, where Delegates met, was across the street from a large building, the Walnut Street Jail. The inmates were noisy and once rioted over jail conditions while Delegates were meeting.

George Washington was unanimously elected to preside over the convention. William Jackson of South Carolina defeated William Temple Franklin, Benjamin’s grandson, as keeper of the journal. Jackson, though, wrote assorted notes, discarded notes from others, and the published journal is lacking. Among items unknown is the extent to which Charles Pickney involvement in creating the Constitution. There are conflicting claims as to the degree to which he helped frame the Constitution.

The convention met in secret. Little about their deliberations leaked out during the convention. Patrick Henry, former Governor of Virginia, was a strong supporter of state sovereignty. He had been elected a Delegate by was not interested in the agenda and declined to attend. Had the proceedings not been secret, Henry may have rushed to fight the convention’s weakening of state sovereignty.

Edmund Randolph, Delegate from and Governor of Virginia, borrowed from the British concept of bicameralism with an upper chamber of a select few to check more democratic inclinations. Indeed, every state except Pennsylvania has a bicameral legislature. Randolph proposed that the upper house would be elected by the state legislatures, the other chamber democratically elected, and representation by state in both houses determined by population. This was known as the Virginia Plan. States with smaller populations opposed electing representatives by population.

Debates arose over whether representation by population should be determined by the number of free inhabitants states had (a view favored by New England states where all were free) or total population including slaves (a view favored by Southern states.)

Some delegates opposed democratic elections of the lower chamber. With memories of the Shay’s Rebellion fresh in the mind of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and others, there were fears the voters would turn to anarchy. Pierce Butler of South Carolina believed that the wealthy and the landed gentry better understood politics and that governance should be left to those most knowledgeable. Roger Sherman of Connecticut also voiced concerns as to whether a democratically elected national legislature would work. Democratically electing the lower chamber passed with six states supporting it, two (New Jersey and South Carolina) opposed, and two (Connecticut and Delaware) divided.

It is noted that some of the wealthier Delegates, such as George Mason, trusted in popular election more than some of the less wealthy delegates, such as Roger Sherman.

James Wilson argued for the direct election of the upper house and the creation of a national government. Others defended the power of the states and wanted state legislatures to elect the upper chamber and to create more of a federal government. James Madison wanted state legislatures to have no role and proposed the lower chamber elect the upper chamber. Madison’s proposal went to a vote and was supported only by three states, Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina with seven votes opposing it.

With the rule of King George III fresh in the minds of Delegates, the idea of an executive leader was distrusted. There was no executive under the Articles of Confederation. James Madison noted that the states that had failed to give their Governor (a few states had a President) veto power saw state legislatures passing measures that harmed minority rights by giving rights to the majority. Roger Sherman argued the executive should only administer the will of the legislature. George Washington’s presence, and the respect given him as the presumptive ultimate executive, probably prevented the Delegates from dividing the executive’s job into an office held by several people.

There was debate over the direct election of the executive. It was argued that voters in a state would be unfamiliar with candidates from outsider their state. James Wilson was suspicious of the public will as he had previously been attacked by an angry mob of radical workers although he argued for the direct election of the executive. None of the other Delegates agreed with Wilson that the executive should be directly elected.

Wilson proposed that the executive be one person. This passed with seven states in favor and three states, New York, Maryland, and Delaware, against the idea. Within states that voted for this, there were those that strongly opposed giving authority to one person.

John Rutledge proposed the upper house choose the executive. Wilson proposed dividing the nation into districts that elected Electors who would then choose the executive. Wilson believed this was the best option for democratic elections after direct election. Wilson argued against making the executive a creation of the politics of the states and argued the executive should represent the interests of the nation as a whole. Only Pennsylvania and Maryland supported electing the executive by Wilsons’ Electoral plan.

Benjamin Franklin proposed the executive be paid only for necessary expenses and no salary. He feared making the office one of temptation for those seeking money and power. Yet no salary might limit the office to people of wealth and the proposal was defeated.

The Delegates debates the role of the executive and the judiciary in reviewing and vetoing legislative actions. Benjamin Franklin opposed allowing the executive veto power out of fear the executive would use veto power to extort for personal gain. Roger Sherman believed the will of many should not be canceled by one person. A compromised inspired by Elbridge Gerry allowing the executive veto that could then be overruled by two thirds of both Houses passed with the support of eight states and two states, Connecticut and Maryland, in opposition.

John Dickinson of Delaware proposed there be a means to remove the executive from office. Roger Sherman argued the legislature should be able to remove the executive at their pleasure. Wilson and Madison feared such intense intermingling of the two branches of government. Dickinson’s proposal that the executive be removed by a vote from the majority of state legislatures was defeated with only Connecticut, George, and South Carolina supporting the proposal.

Newspaper coverage of the meetings was faulty. A report in the “Pennsylvania Herald” that Rhode Island had essentially withdrawn from the union and that that military force was being considered to obtain the state’s share of debt was either totally imagined or relied upon erroneous sources.

John Rutledge proposed that representation be according to population with three fifths counted for those who were not free. The issue of slavery was interjected into the debates. He hoped by giving some of the representation issue that South Carolina could join with larger states in fighting smaller states. The large states then were Virginia (747,000 inhabitants), Pennsylvania (433,000 inhabitants), North Carolina (395,000 inhabitants), and Massachusetts (378,000 inhabitants.) In contrast, Delaware had 60,000 inhabitants. Delaware was joined in a small state coalition with New Jersey (154,000 inhabitants), New Jersey (154,000 inhabitants), Connecticut (237,000 inhabitants), and New York (340,000 inhabitants). George and South Carolina saw themselves as small states yet believed their populations were rapidly growing, and counting slaves in their population would be beneficial to their states. New York also believed it was growing and it had greater economic power than many of the other states.

The smaller states advanced what was called the New Jersey Plan that called for explicit federal powers, especially concerning taxes and regulations on trade and commerce. It called for one vote per state in the federal legislature. This created a month long deadlock.

In the debates between whether a federal or national government should be established, John Dickinson was one of the first to suggest it be a compromise combination of both. Other efforts at compromise continued as Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Samuel Johnson argued for the lower house being represented by population and the upper chamber having each state with equal representation.

Alexander Hamilton proposed abolishing all state governments. This idea was provocative and did not go far.

The delegates debated as to whether representation in the national legislature should include property as well as population and how slaves should be considered in determining the numbers of representatives each state would receive. Political necessity required a compromise of some type. The convention decided that the slave population could be counted toward the number of representatives slave owning states could receive, but that slaves would be counted at three-fifths a person towards apportionment.

During the convention, a mob attacked a widow with the last name of Korbmacher in the belief she was a witch and stoned her a few blocks away from the Pennsylvania State House. She died eight days later from the wounds. Thus were Delegates reminded that even in the age of Enlightenment some of the public remained more closely identified with the era of belief in killing suspected witches.

Debate over whether the federal legislature could directly veto any state legislative actions was determined in the negative.

James Wilson’s proposal for the direct election of the President was defeated 9 to 1. Roger Sherman argued the public would never be able to be properly informed to be able to judge who should be President. James McClurg of Virginia offered that the President could serve with “good behavior” for life. Others proposed seven year terms.

Benjamin Franklin proposed that the judiciary be elected by lawyers. This did not receive much support. Debate between whether the judiciary should be appointed by the executive or by the legislature led to the compromise of their being appointed by the executive with the advice and consent of the Senate”. The Delegates were not in agreement as to what “advice and consent” meant.

Luther Martin proposed the President could serve only one term. The idea of a six year term for the President was approved by nine states with Delaware voting against the idea. Whether or if so, how, a President could be impeached was debated.

The New Hampshire delegation arrived late into the proceedings. They arrived in time for debates over future amendments to the Articles of Union. Most agreed that future amendments should not require the approval of all state legislatures.

Elbridge Gerry proposed a successful motion that a committee be established to create the details of what had been so far been decided. Excluded from this was the subject of the Presidency which was still under review. John Rutledge, Edmund Randolph, Nathaniel Gorham, Oliver Ellsworth, and James Wilson were selected to serve on this committee.

Hugh Williamson proposed that three people serve as the executive for one long term. Luther Martin suggested a term of 11 years. Gerry suggested 15 years. Some delegates linked issues and insisted that support for allowing a second term was a condition for their supporting a method of selection. A single person serving one seven year term passed with six states supporting the proposal and three, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, opposing it. The Southern states warned that no details were to include restricting slavery or export taxes.

The secrecy of the convention allowed rumor to fill the vacuum of information. A pamphlet was distributed claiming the Delegates had decided upon a monarchy and were requesting that England’s Duke of Osnaburgh be crowned King.

Gouverneur Morris and John Dickinson argued that only property owners should serve in the national legislature. The committee had written that the national legislators should have the same qualifications in each state as for state legislators. Dickinson believed that property owners had more principles than mobs who owned no property. Benjamin Franklin argued against limiting public office to the wealthy.

Some worried about foreign agents conspiring to be elected. Debates emerged over citizenship requirements for holding office. Debate also focused on what the ratio of population to representative should be, and whether it should be allowed to change over time.

The capital was determined, without having decided upon a location, to be a ten square mile area that would not be a part of any state.

The committee working on details revisited the previously mostly ignored topic of electing the President with Electors. There was dissatisfaction with the notion that Congress should elect the President and several felt a need to keep the President and Congress more separate. The state legislatures would decide how to select the Electors. There were fears that no one would receive a majority. Hugh Williamson suggested that a President could be elected with the support of at least a third vote of the Electors.

Many details were resolved, yet the issue of slavery remained unaddressed. Several Delegates, including George Washington, had arrived with some slaves. Slavery then was commonplace and mostly accepted, although some anti-slavery groups existed. New England had 3,700 slaves out of a population of 900,000. The Mid Atlantic states had 36,000 slaves, of which 21,000 lived in New York, which was 3% of the total Mid Atlantic population. There were over 400,000 slaves in Virginia and Maryland, composed about 40% of the population there. South Carolina had approximately just under 100,000 slaves within a population of 240,000. The political power in South Carolina and Georgia were in its agricultural low country which believed slavery was important to their economic future. It was leaders in these two states that most argued for the continuation and expansion of slavery.

Racism was pervasive in those times, as most European and American Caucasians believed then that their race was superior over African Americans and Native Americans.

George Mason argued that slavery turned their owners into tyrants. Thomas Jefferson was repulsed by slavery yet could not imagine how slaves could exist free in society. Few challenged the morality of slavery. Arguments were intertwined with economic and commerce issues. Southern states threatened to leave the union if their issues on slavery were addressed. Scholars have since debated whether or not this threat was real or a bluff. The convention agreed that a person whose labor or service was bounded to another who escaped into another state was to be returned to the person claiming that service or labor.

A bill of rights as not included. Many of the Delegates had tired and believed it was only their duty to create a framework for government and no more.

The Convention offered a proposed Constitution. The states had to ratify it. In Pennsylvania, with its single chamber legislature and weak Governor, required convincing anti-strong government legislators to support a stronger two chamber Congress, yet is passed the Pennsylvania legislature, even if with some reluctance of the part of several legislators.

While Pennsylvania was the first state to begin debating ratification, Delaware was the first state to ratify. Other states followed as anti-Federalists were not well organized. Still, the New Hampshire legislature adjourned without taking action either way. The Rhode Island legislature declined to consider the issue. The South Carolina legislature overcame Governor Rawlings Lowndes’ attempt to halt a vote being taken and then approved ratification by 149 to 73. Virginia approved adopting a compromise that endorsed encouraging seeking to amend the new government. New York’s legislature intensely debated ratification before doing so by 30 to 27. North Carolina’s legislature rejected ratification at first before doing so a year later.

The Constitution became official. As the author notes, the revolutionary debate that began on Constitutional issues continues through the present.


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