Wednesday, August 28, 2013
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” —Declaration of Independence
In 1776, upstart colonists penned the most revolutionary document in history. The Declaration of Independence flipped the world upside down, and the Divine Right of Kings suddenly became the consent of the governed. The individual was now the one endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This was a world-shattering concept.
Like most revolutionary visions, this one didn't suddenly spring onto the world stage. John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine were among many who advocated that consent of the governed was dictated by the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Not everyone accepted this concept, of course—certainly not King George III or the English nobility.
The Founders, however, were steeped in this incendiary idea. Self-governance had been part of their experience in the New World. The colonists were subjects of England, but a round-trip sail across the great Atlantic put three to four months between them and their king. Self-rule started the Pilgrims. The Mayflower Compact began by pledging loyalty to King James, but then went on to decree that the colonists would “combine together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid: and by virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.” Basically, the Mayflower Compact was a written statement declaring self-government in colonial America.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” —Thomas Jefferson
The Framers didn't believe rights were handed down by governments, kings, or rulers. Instead, they believed every individual was endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. In their experience, governments didn't protect rights; governments threatened rights. World history had been an unbroken string of rulers suppressing rights and liberty.
Rights endowed by God was not a new concept. It went back at least to Marcus Tullius Cicero and the Roman Republic. Cicero searched for what he called natural law.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC–46 BC) on Natural Rights (abridged): “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. There will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all time. If so great a power belongs to the decrees of fools that the laws of Nature can be changed by their votes, then why do they not ordain that what is bad be considered good?”
John Locke and the Enlightenment magnified awareness that rights came from God. Locke wrote that humans were “by nature free, equal and independent.”
Locke’s teachings didn't mean that natural rights couldn't be suppressed. It was the exception when they were not. Thomas Jefferson said, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” This means that force can be used to suppress rights, but they remain intrinsically joined to our human spirit. That is why the history of the world is not only the history of despots; it’s also the history of man’s constant struggle to reassert his natural rights. John Adams agreed, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”
Saturday, August 24, 2013
It’s been called a miracle. The Federal Convention, which we now call the Constitutional Convention, was an astonishing accomplishment. It was an unusually hot summer for Philadelphia, and for a few weeks there was an infestation of big black flies that buzzed around the delegates eyes. To facilitate deliberation, the delegates voted for secret proceedings. The intent was to promote open debate and allow the delegates to change their minds, but it also meant that the windows were nailed shut and the doors remained closed. The stench of stale sweat and absence of any air circulation made the chamber extremely unpleasant.
There were several moments during the convention when it looked certain to fail. Tempers often grew hotter than the stifling room. Despite discomfort and heated emotions, the delegates refused to leave until they had secured the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.
Friday, August 23, 2013
“The people may not yet be sufficiently mislead to retract from error. Evils must be sorely felt before they can be removed.” George WashingtonIt’s hard to believe that George Washington could be underrated. After all, he’s eulogized in marble, stone, and oil; Amazon lists nearly two thousand biographies; and he’s called the Father of Our Country. And yet …
The popular perception of Washington is of a man of honor that won a war through strength of character and perseverance, and a first president who gracefully stepped down from power after two terms. Most view him as cold and aloof. Many dismiss him as an aristocrat who owned slaves and relied on others for creative thinking and grand ideas. Historians generally concede his military contributions, and restrained leadership as president, but dismiss him as a mere figurehead at the Constitutional Convention. They invariably mention that during four arduous months of debate, he spoke only once.
Washington was very different from our image of the man. It’s true that he was tall and stately, personally reserved, preoccupied with his reputation, and ambitious, but he also loved to dance, play cards, and attend the theater. He was a superb horseman who enjoyed wagering on races, ran his plantation with a sharp sense for profit, attended church religiously, was a master politician, and bragged that he hadn’t eaten dinner alone since before the war. Whatever he became involved in, he actively managed, and he was an expert in public relations and image making. Washington was a vibrant, athletic man who wanted more than anything else to be loved by his countrymen. He was open and vociferous about his political beliefs, but closed and silent about his political manipulations.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Two hundred years ago, there were no televised speeches or proceedings, no one captured video of crucial events, and reporters needed to live close to a news event. The Constitutional Convention was so secret they nailed the windows shut and posted guards. Even fifty years after this historic event, the only records of what happened inside Independence Hall were terse official minutes and a few partisan reconstructions. Pundits talk about original intent of the Framers, but do they have a clue? How could anyone claim to know what the Founders thought?
Actually, it’s not difficult at all. They left a massive record. The secret proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were eventually made public after James Madison died. Dolley Madison published her husband’s exceptionally comprehensive convention notes which were in excess of 230,000 handwritten words. Modern students have access not only to the Federalist Papers, but a collection of opinion pieces we now call the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Constitution was ratified by conventions of the people in the thirteen states, and we have good-to-excellent documentation of all of these ratification debates.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
“The powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.” Thomas Jefferson
The phrase checks and balances has become so commonplace, it is often spoken as if it were a single word, but in the eighteen century, the phrase represented distinctly different concepts. John Adams may have been the first to put the words together in his 1787 publication, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, but balances and checks is the phrase used in The Federalist, and that is the sequence Madison would have thought appropriate. First balance powers between the branches of government, and then place checks on those powers so they may not be abused.
Political power frightened the Founders. They believed that only by limiting government powers could liberty survive the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits of other men. The separation and balancing of power with checks was designed to prevent a majority coalition from taking control of the government. Each branch was given defined powers, and then each of these powers was limited and checked by another branch or entity. The system was purposely designed to slow governmental actions enough to allow due deliberation.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Our Constitution created a limited representative republic. A republic is different from a democracy. In a democracy, the majority can directly make laws, while in a republic, elected representatives make laws. Basically, in a pure democracy, the majority has unlimited power, whereas in a republic, a constitution limits the majority and provides safeguards for the individual and minorities.
In the United States, we have both systems. There is no way for Americans to directly enact legislation at the national level, but half of the states allow ballot initiatives which, if passed by a majority of the voters, have the force of law.
The Framers’ intent at the national level was a representative republic. The word democracy is not mentioned in the Constitution. Most of the Framers distrusted pure democracy. Some had been frightened by Shays' Revolt and equated democracy with mob rule. Others were convinced by Madison that different factions would come together until they formed a majority, and then take advantage of those who were not members of their coalition. In fact, Madison showed that throughout history, this phenomenon had destroyed every experiment in democracy.
Monday, August 19, 2013
Bills of rights were not new at the time of the Founding. The 1215 Magna Carta forced King John to respect specified rights, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 guaranteed rights, and many states had previously enacted declarations of rights into their state constitutions.
The call for a Bill of Rights was an anti-Federalists political weapon against ratification. For many antifederalists, the real objection was that the Constitution defined a national government far too strong for their taste. This argument floundered, while a demand for a bill of rights gained enormous traction with people. Influential Founders made vocal and repeated demands for a Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson called the omission a major mistake, writing, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” Richard Henry Lee objected to the lack of protection for, “those essential rights of mankind without which liberty cannot exist.”
At first, the Federalists argued that the Constitution’s checks and balances constrained the government so it couldn’t abridge individual rights. But in the Virginia convention, Patrick Henry denounced the Constitution’s checks and balances, calling them, “specious, imaginary balances,” and “ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances.”
The base document included a few rights interspersed throughout the text. Writ of habeus corpus could not be suspended—except when the country was under attack; no bill of attainer or ex post facto law could be passed at the national or state level; Americans were guaranteed a jury trial for criminal cases; there could be no religious test for federal office, no state law could impair the obligation of contracts, and the citizens of each state were entitled to the privileges and immunities of the citizens of every other state.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
“The Sacred Rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” Alexander Hamilton
Madison’s support for a bill of rights became crucial. At first he objected, then became unsure, and finally became a forceful advocate. He came to believe that a Bill of Rights had become a political necessity. In his speech on June 8, 1789, when he first proposed a Bill of Rights, he said, “It may be thought all paper barriers against the power of the community are too weak to be worthy of attention … yet, as they have a tendency to impress some … it may be one mean to control the majority from those acts to which they might be otherwise inclined.” Politically, Madison became a strong advocate for these amendments, but as these words reflect, he remained ambivalent philosophically.
Saturday, August 17, 2013
The Articles of Confederation proved barely adequate during the imperative of war and a failure after independence was achieved. A few years after the Paris Peace Treaty, our military had been reduced to near extinction, depression and inflation sapped hope, insurrection sprang from civil injustice, and a confused government tottered perilously close to collapse. European powers hovered like vultures, eager to devour the remains.
It looked as if the American experiment was doomed. Then in May of 1787, delegates came to Philadelphia with a congressional charter to revise the Articles of Confederation. They didn’t revise the Articles. Instead, they wrote a constitution from scratch for a totally new government. These men carried out a bloodless coup that replaced an existing government without a shot.
Who were these men? Who wrote the Constitution of the United States?
The short answer is that Gouverneur Morris wrote the Constitution, with editing help from other members of the Committee of Style. In truth, all of the delegates, to a greater or lesser degree influenced the substance of the Constitution. There were fifty-five men that attended the Federal Convention, what we now call the Constitutional Convention. When Thomas Jefferson read the list of attendees, he called them an “assembly of demi-gods.”
Not exactly, but they were staunch revolutionaries and patriots. They were also highly successful, well educated, and unswerving in their support of the republican form of government. They came to Philadelphia committed to rescuing American from its slide into anarchy.
A few are household names. George Washington presided over the convention. James Madison, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and George Mason were all key delegates. Many of the rest have been forgotten.
Friday, August 16, 2013
“What is a Constitution? It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental law are established.”—William Paterson, Delegate to Constitutional Convention and author of the New Jersey Plan
Everybody talks about Founding Principles—often called First Principles—but what are these bedrock values that formed the basis of the American Experiment. I believe there were five principles of government that were firmly held by all fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention. These principles directed the design of the Constitution of the United States of America.
- Rights come from God, not government
- All political power emanates from the people
- A limited representative republic protects liberty
- A binding social contract depends on a written constitution
- Private property rights must be protected
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
I was inspired to start this blog after listening to a political science graduate on a talk radio. I was startled to hear her say that she was never required to read the body of the Constitution, only the Bill of Rights. This brought to mind once again the three most widespread misconceptions about the Constitution.
- The Bill of Rights is the most important part of the Constitution
- The Bill of Rights guarantees our freedom
- The Constitution is ancient and not applicable to the modern world
The Framers would vehemently disagree with the first myth. Viewing the Bill of Rights as the most important part of the Constitution would go against everything they believed. In fact, many of the framers opposed a Bill of Rights. Even those who supported a list of rights still believed the main body of the Constitution was the linchpin that protected liberty.
The framers had a very simple philosophy about protecting liberty—Limit government power. Period. All oppression comes from power, and excessive government power inevitably leads to oppression. They searched world history for an exception to this rule and found none.