Sunday, December 8, 2013

What happened in those secret meeting in 1787?

“Can it be of less consequence that the meaning of a Constitution should be fixed and known, than a meaning of a law should be so?”—James Madison

Fifty-five men came to Philadelphia in May of 1787 to secretly plot the overthrow of the United States government. At first, a coup was not subscribed to by all the participants, but most of them soon acquiesced to framing an entirely new form of government. At the time, this conclave was called the Federal Convention; today we refer to it as the Constitutional Convention.

Tempest at Dawn
James Madison, circa convention
One of the first acts of the convention was to declare the proceedings secret. There was a general fear that newspapers would excite Congress and the populace against abandoning the Articles of Confederation. The windows were nailed shut and guards posted at the doors. Delegates were lectured by George Washington never to whisper a word to anyone about what was happening inside the chamber. The official minutes are scanty, recording little beyond an official tally of the votes. A few delegates made private notes, but of those, only one attended every day and wrote everything down. James Madison purposely sat in front so he could take extensive notes of all the deliberations. He recorded the proceedings in his own shorthand, and then transcribed his daily notes into longhand. When finally published in 1840, Madison’s notes exceeded 230,000 words—all written with a quill pen.

We know what happened in the State House chamber due to Madison’s commitment and laborious effort. With one exception, historians consider the notes to be a generally unbiased and straightforward recording of the debates and votes. The exception is the omission of Charles Pinckney’s plan for the government. Despite Pinckney twice presenting his plan to the delegation—and a hard copy reputedly handed to Madison—the plan is nowhere to be found. Needless to say, the two were not friends.

In writing Tempest at Dawn, I read and analyzed Madison’s notes three times. I believe they are an honest reflection of the proceedings. These notes are invaluable. They show how the Framers argued repeatedly about every nuance of the design until they built a consensus. The Framers bequeathed to us the Constitution of the United States of America, but it was James Madison who gave us the roadmap that showed how and why they arrived at this particular design. There have been dozens of exceptional history books about the Constitutional Convention, and each author came away in awe of what was accomplished behind those closed doors.

When a serious study is made of those proceedings, it becomes obvious that this was a unique event in world history—a rigorous and lengthy struggle by highly educated men to rationally analysis government systems. These men had fought a bloody rebellion for eight years to escape a monarchy and insisted on a system that would preserve liberty. There was a reason for every element of the design. These reasons had nothing to do with 1787, and everything to do with the predilection of a few to seize power so they can control everyone else. They wrote a system to harness this gruesome failing of the human species. A failing that remains with us to this day.

Before we discard any more elements of their work, we ought to understand why they designed the system they did. Read the Constitution, but also examine Madison’s notes. There is more drama in there than you would ever guess. Or you could read Tempest at Dawn. That would be a great idea.

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