Obviously those who had fought to resist, and eventually throw off, the British yoke of tyranny, were not content to see their newly won independence dissipated and corrupted into social anarchy. The substantial men of property, who had risked lives and fortunes, desired a stable and centralized form of government. And logical for the times was their desire. The leading men of the republic (among whom Madison was outstanding) got together to discuss ways and means of remedying the situation, and to bring about order and stability--the conditio sine qua non for a continued prosperous development of the country. Madison in a letter written to a Mr. Andrew Stevenson, in 1826, briefly summarizes the successive steps and acts which led to the calling of the Constitutional Convention:
"I am not sure that I understand your allusions to the origin of the convention of 1787. If I do, you have overlooked steps antecedent to interposition of the old Congress. That convention grew out of the convention at Annapolis, in August, 1786, recommended by Virginia in the preceding winter. It had for its objects certain provisions only, relating to commerce and revenue. The Deputies who met, inferring from an interchange of information as to the state of the public mind that it had made a great advance subsequent even to the act of Virginia, towards maturity for a thorough reform of the federal system, took the decisive step of recommending a Convention, with adequate powers for the purpose. The Legislature of Virginia, being the first assembled, set the example of compliance, and endeavored to strengthen it by putting General Washington at the head of her Deputation."
On February 21, 1787, Congress approved the calling of the convention, and May 14, 1787, was fixed as the opening date. It was not until the 25th of May, however, that fifty-five delegates from all but one state (Rhode Island being the exception) [North Carolina and Rhode Island held out against ratification to the last, the former yielding consent in November, 1789, the latter in May, 1790. Rhode Island, in fact did not at first even call a ratifying convention. The dominant powers of Rhode Island feared the interference of a central authority with their local privileges, "and especially with their favorite device of issuing paper money." When it seemed as if these two states would permanently withold ratification, "Congress [according to a commentator on "The Federalist," writing in Washington in the 1818] proceeded solemnly to enact that the manufactures of those states should be considered as foreign, and that the acts laying a duty on goods imported and on tonnage should extend to them, they [these two states] hastened with a discernment quickened by a sense of interest....to unite themselves to the Confederation:!
It is also interesting to note that such sturdy patriots as Patrick Henry, and James Monroe, fifth President, vigorously opposed, and in the Virginia convention voted against, ratification. In Massachusetts ratification was opposed by John Hancock and Samuel Adams; in New York by a majority of the convention; but eventually the three states fell in line. In each of these States, however, the vote was close, testifying to the popular disappointment with the new Constitution. In Virginia the vote was 88 in favor, 80 against; in New York it was 31 in favor, 29 against; and in Massachusetts the vote stood 187 in favor, with 168 against.
By April, 1789, however, the government functioned entirely under the new Constitution. The same year which witnessed the fall of the Bastille also recorded the erection of the structure which was to serve as the bulwark of nascent capitalism in America. De Toqueville, with Gallic incisiveness, and manifesting that passion for dramatic values characteristic of the French, concludes his summary of the framing of the Constitution and the new government with this observation: "The new Federal Government commenced its functions in 1789, after an interregnum of two years. THE REVOLUTION OF AMERICA TERMINATED PRECISELY WHEN THAT OF FRANCE BEGAN"!] convened at Independence Hall, Philadelphia. They included twenty-one who had fought in the Revolutionary War; eight who had signed the Declaration of Independence; a number who had served in the Congress and as governors; and many among them held degrees from the foremost British and American universities. De Toqueville admiringly said:
"The assembly which accepted the task of composing the second constitution was small, but George Washington was its President, and it contained the finest minds and the noblest characters which had ever appeared in the New World."
Few of those, however, who had held "extreme" views at the beginning of the Revolution were present. Particularly conspicuous by their absence were Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the latter, however, having been in France (as Minister to France) since 1785, from which country he did not return until 1789. One may, perhaps, find in the absence of these revolutionary fighters confirmation of the maxim that the propagandists and firebrands of the actual revolutionary struggle by and through their very ardor, their revolutionary passion, their clinging to principles, and their scorning of half-measures and compromises, disqualify themselves for the more tedious prosaic and unpopular task of constructing a new government--a task which often calls for trading with the opposition, compromising of principles, and adjusting the ideal of the revolution to the material possibilities at hand. That, at any rate, is true of bourgeois revolutions, and of revolutions which (like the Russian Bolshevik Revolution at its inception) require for complete success universal acceptance of their fundamental program.
However, regardless of the part previously played by these eminent men of the American Republic, here they sat, conscious of the grave responsibility resting upon them. The venerable Franklin, in his eighty-second year, represented almost the very beginning of American's colonial growth, having been born during the reign of Queen Anne, while Alexander Hamilton, only thirty years old in 1787, represented the America that was yet to be. Thus it might be said that this assembly embraced the past, the present and the future of the United States of America. To assert that these fifty-five men were wholly disinterested would be to assert the absurd and the utterly impossible. To assert that they were scoundrels solely intent on amassing wealth, and exploiting their fellow-men, would be to slander them, and with them, the spirit of progress, and to make of the materialist conception of history a travesty, and to distort the voice of liberty into the senseless gibberish of idiots. Intelligent and thoughtful men now know and acknowledge that the "fathers" of the American Republic were neither fiends plotting the enslavement of the masses, nor altruistic supermen concerned only with abstract principles of right and justice. Those seeking confirmation on this score can do no better than to consult the so-called Madison papers, ["The Journal of the Debates in the Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States, May-September, 1787" as recorded by James Madison.] which, while unofficial minutes of the Constitutional Convention held from May 25 to September 17, 1787, nevertheless had the tacit approval of the convention. Madison recorded the speeches and acts of the convention with painstaking care and accuracy. Here, then we have a faithful portrayal of the great historical drama of which the culminating act was the final consolidation of the United States of America.
No one can read the speeches of the delegates to the convention without being impressed with these two major facts: (1)--That here was a body of cultured and informed men of extraordinary intelligence, struggling earnestly and sincerely to form a compact that would secure to all the essential rights and opportunities that the age could provide; and, (2)--that material and economic interests constituted the dominant note and the driving force in that convention. There is no contradiction involved here. Each individual or group took it for granted that to further a particular material interest, the interests of all were advanced. It was assumed (and the assumption was justified at the time) that enough, if not plenty, was within reach of all, barring the lazy and physically helpless. And though it was recognized that there were rich and poor, the poor were not so in the sense of the word today. Barring exceptional cases, a man might have been considered poor merely because he could only enjoy a comfortable living, or perhaps because he had no slaves, or but a few, as contrasted with the man who owned vast estates with hundreds of slaves. But poverty, in the sense of large numbers being in dire want, and suffering oppression at the hands of the rich, was practically unknown.
Land was plentiful. Property was easily acquired. Hence property was spoken of as something normal to the average person. But the "fathers" had the spectacle of Europe before them. "We see in the populous countries in Europe now, what we shall be hereafter," said Madison. There was poverty aplenty. And there property was a far more exclusive possession than in America. Being men of vision, and having a natural regard for the thing which to them and their age spelled the beginning and end of a free society--the right and the untrammeled opportunity to accumulate property--they were much concerned about providing safeguards for that property for the future. Two questions were among the chief subjects of the debates in the convention: Property and slavery--and slavery after all, was nothing more than a differentiated property institution, though some of the delegates balked at giving formal recognition to the slave as his mater's property.
In the Madison papers, for example, a note is found to the effect that "Mr. Madison thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandise, consumed, etc." It could scarcely be expected of Madison to have reasoned that after all slaves were like merchandise and that they were bought and sold in the slave market, and that they were consumed by their masters exactly in the same sense that horses and cattle were "consumed."
The institution of slavery did, indeed, present a serious problem to the delegates. Most of them spoke in unqualified terms of condemnation and denunciation of the institution. It was recognized, however, that no union of the states could be formed if the powerful South were left out, and that in order to effect a union slavery had to be swallowed. In short, the endeavor was to make the best out of a bad situation and to accept the fact of slavery without endorsing it as an institution.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania [Gouverneur Morris was as ardent an advocate of property rights as any of the delegates but having no economic use for slaves, it was easy for him to denounce slavery as a nefarious institution. Of him James Madison said (in a letter dated April 8, 1831): "Whether he [Morris] accorded precisely 'with the political doctrines of Hamilton' I cannot say. He certainly did not 'incline to the Democratic side,' and was very frank in avowing his opinions when most at variance with those prevailing in the convention. He did not propose any outline of a constitution, as was done by Hamilton; but he contended for certain articles (a Senate for life, particularly), which he held essential to the stability and energy of a Government capable of protecting the rights of property AGAINST THE SPIRIT OF DEMOCRACY. He wished to make the weight of wealth to balance that of number, which he pronounced to be the only effectual security to each against the encroachments of the other."] spoke in unmeasured terms when he said (in Madison's notes): "He [Morris] never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other States having slaves."
The particular occasion for Morris's remarks was the question of representation. The South insisted on including the slaves as part of the population, which basis of course, would insure to them a larger representation in the national government. Said Morris: "Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?" General Pinckney, of Sourth Carolina, on the other hand, insisted "that the rule of wealth should be ascertained....and that property in slaves should not be exposed to danger under a government instituted for the protection of property." And arguing against computing representation on a basis which included slaves, Mr. Patterson of New Jersey said: "He [Patterson] could regard Negro slaves in no light but as property. They are no free agents, have no personal liberty, no faculty of acquiring property, but on the contrary are themselves property and like other property entirely at the will of the master. Has a man in Virginia a number of votes [in the state legislature] in proportion to the number of his slaves? And if Negroes are not represented in the States to which they belong, why should they be represented in the general government?....He was also against such an indirect encouragement of the slave trade; observing that Congress in their act relating to the change of the 8th article of confederation had been ashamed to use the term 'slaves' and had substituted a description." Notwithstanding logic and denunciation of slavery, the implacable South Carolinians returned to the charge: "Mr. [Pierce] Butler and General Pinckney insisted that blacks be included in the rule of representation equally with the white; and for that purpose moved that the words 'three-fifths' [three freemen to equal five slaves] be struck out."
Here, indeed, was a dilemma either horn of which the delegates were desperately trying to escape. Finally, it was decided that one slave should be regarded as equal to three-fifths of a white person! Colonel Mason of Virginia exclaimed: "This infernal traffic [importation of slaves] originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it." ["But the conscience of thoughtful men in the colonies was never quite easy upon this score [Negro slavery], and it was one of the accusations of Thomas Jefferson against the crown and lords of Great Britain that every attempt to ameliorate or restrain the slave trade on the part of the colonists had been checked by the great proprietary interests in the mother country. (In 1776 Lord Dartmouth wrote that the colonists could not be allowed 'to check or discourage a traffic so beneficent to the nation.') With the moral and intellectual ferment of the revolution, the question of Negro slavery came right into the foreground of the public conscience. 'All men are by nature free and equal,' said the Virginia Bill of Rights, and outside in the sunshine, under the whip of the overseer, toiled the Negro slave."--H. G. Wells.] Mr. Pinckney, representing South Carolina, served notice on the convention that under no circumstances would South Carolina agree to any compact which included prohibition of the slave trade. "In every proposed extension of the powers of Congress [said Pinckney] that State [South Carolina] has expressly and watchfully excepted that of meddling with the importation of Negroes." And, again, Mr. Pinckney, according to Madison's notes, "reminded the convention that if the committee should fail to insert some security to the Sourthern States against and emancipation of the slaves....he should be bound by duty to his State to vote against their report."
Mr. Ellsworth of Connecticut somewhat sarcastically observed (in answer to Colonel Mason's comment on the corrupting influence of slavery on the slave owner themselves) that "as he had never owned a slave he [Ellsworth] could not judge of the effects of slavery on character. He said, however, that if it was to be considered in a moral light we ought to go farther and free those already in the country." And he adds shrewdly: "As population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless." Mr. Pinckney of South Carolina undoubtedly touched a sensitive nerve when, in replying to Mason of Virginia, he stated: "Virginia (she) will gain by stopping the importations [of slaves]. Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants." James Madison correctly outlined the real division of interest in the proposed union as being between the North and the South and not, as some of the delegates thought, between the large and small states. Said he: "The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination."
It was contended by many speakers that the primary function of government was to secure the right of property and the interests of the wealthy. On the other side voices were raised in protest. "Property," said Mr. Morris, "ought to have its weight, but not all the weight." Gerry of Massachusetts "insisted that the commercial and monied interests would be more secure in the hands of the State legislatures than of the people at large." Gouverneur Morris further observed that "the great and wealthy....in the course of things will necessarily compose the legislative body. Wealth [said he] tends to corrupt the mind, to nourish the love of power and to stimulate it to oppression."
James Madison was one of the clearest thinkers of the convention. A great scholar, he was familiar with the workings of most of the governments of antiquity. Though naturally unable to lift himself entirely out of his own times he was, nevertheless, free from most of the class prejudices which ruled the majority of the delegates. His sound republican mind, and his love and understanding of freedom, as then conceived, caused him to revolt at some of the suggestions made to fetter the popular will. In theory he was opposed to any property qualifications being attached to the right of voting, [Daniel De Leon, discussing this point, said: "The Continental Congress was engaged with the subject of the ballot.... Somebody wanted a property qualification. Benjamin Franklin asked: 'Suppose a man comes and wants to enrol. You ask him, "What is your name?" "John Jones." "Have you any property?" "Yes, I have a donkey." "How much is your donkey worth?" "Five pounds." "Very well, you can vote." Next year the same man comes around and he wants to register. You ask him, "have you any property?" "No." "What has become of your donkey?" "He is dead." "Well, then you can't vote!" 'Now,' says Franklin, 'who voted last year, the man or the donkey?'"] and yet he appeared puzzled at the apparent contradictions that were implied in giving the propertiless the right to vote on matters involving the rights of property. He argued nevertheless that "the interests and rights of every class should be duly represented and understood in the public councils." He divided the citizens into three principal classes, viz., "the landed, the commercial and the manufacturing," of which, he said, the landed was by far the predominant. Extending by copious notes a speech which he made on the subject of property and its future development, he said:
"The United States have a precious advantage also in the actual distribution of property, particularly the landed property; and in the universal hope of acquiring property.... Whenever the majority shall be without landed or other equivalent property and without the means or hope of acquiring it, what is to secure the rights of property against the danger from an equality and universality of suffrage, vesting complete power over property in hands without a share in it: not to speak of a danger in the meantime from a dependence of an increasing number on the wealth of a few?"
Here, in a few pen-strokes, Madison furnishes the contrast between his own time and the distant future. For today the vast majority are without property and without the means or hope of acquiring it. And it is not to be laid against him that he was unable to solve the problem which he so clearly outlined. In summing up the question of the right of voting he said:
"Under every view of the subject, it seems indispensable that the mass of citizens should not be without a voice, in making the laws which they are to obey, and in choosing the magistrates who are to administer them, and if the only alternative be between an equal and universal right of suffrage for each branch of the government and a confinement of the entire right to a part of the citizens, it is better that those having the greater interest at stake, namely, that of property and persons both, should be deprived of half their share in the government than, that those having the lesser interest, that of personal rights only, should be deprived of the whole."
Some of the delegates were undoubtedly in favor of a limited monarchy, having no faith whatever in the ability of the mass of the people to direct the affairs of the country. Alexander Hamilton frankly stated that "he acknowledged himself not to think favorably of republican government," but added that (of course!) "he professed himself to be as zealous an advocate for liberty as any man whatever," and added further that the inequality in property resulted from that very liberty itself! It was no secret that Hamilton held the mass of the people in contempt, in absolute contrast to Jefferson who never failed to extol the mass of the people. On one occasion Jefferson wrote "that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army--they may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves."--And elsewhere he said" "I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom." Hamilton, the plutocrat in the making, is reported to have snarled: "The People, your People, Sir is a Great Beast."
Another delegate, Mr. Dickinson of Delaware, also very distrustful of the people, urged a senate consisting "of the most distinguished character, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible."
Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts at one stage of the proceeding cheerily observed that "according to the idea of one gentlemen (Mr. Mercer) our government, it seems, is to be a government of plunder!" Looking at the matter today, and realizing what interests, in fact, have controlled the United States government during the greater part of its history, one is tempted to say, in the vernacular, "You said a mouthful, Mr. Mercer!"
It was the same Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts (whose practice of shifting local political boundary lines to suit the needs of political elections gave the language the term Gerrymandering), who petulantly observed that he "never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the executive alone to declare war.: (This proposal was made.) Had Mr. Gerry been a student of events during the period beginning in the summer of 1916, and ending with the seventh day of April, 1917, he would have learned a great deal relating to the subject!
On the subject of war there was little difference of opinion among the delegates. Most of them abhorred the very idea of war. And none expressed it better than Madison when, in his scholarly, reasoned way, he stated:
"In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the executive magistrate. Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people. It is perhaps questionable whether the best concerted system of absolute power in Europe could maintain itself, in a situation where no alarms of external danger could tame the people to the domestic yoke."
This might have been written to describe the present situation in Europe and Asia, particularly in Italy, Germany and Japan. No informed and thinking person can doubt that one of the powerful springs of action, propelling the gangsters in charge of the absolutist government in those countries, constitutes precisely that fear of revolt at home. The bloody dictators of those countries, and their industrial and financial masters, are ever ringing the bells of alarm "of external danger," in order to "tame the people to the domestic yoke."
Elsewhere Madison remarked:
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
The most picturesque, lovable and genial character in the convention was, without a doubt, old Benjamin Franklin, then enjoying the ripe age of 82 year. As mentioned before, he formed an extreme contrast to the very much younger Alexander Hamilton. Franklin's is the voice of America's pastoral past, Hamilton's that of its capitalist-plutocrate future. In simple, straight language, the old philosopher statesman and scientist propounded his views, and they were for the most part of the very essence of wisdom. He was no orator, and this fact in connection with physical disabilities (impaired sight, etc.) prompted him to write out most of his speeches and have them read by someone else.
In a speech opposing property qualifications for voting he said (as recorded by Madison):
"Doctor Franklin expressed his dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. If honesty was often the companion of wealth, and if poverty was exposed to peculiar temptations, it was not less true that the possession of property increased the desire of more property. Some of the greatest rogues he was ever acquainted with, were the richest rogues [!]."
The eagle having been selected as representing the American spirit, Franklin expressed regret at this choice. To him the turkey was a much more likely bird! The turkey, he argued, was a typical American product; it was peaceful and domesticated, serving a highly useful purpose. The eagle, on the other hand, was a rapacious animal, a bird of prey; moreover, imperious and given to flights not in keeping with the true earthbound American nature! How characteristic was this contention! And here again we are given a symbolical picture of the America that was, and the America that was to be.
Again, the question arose as to what to do with ex-Presidents, a question that still agitates some of our "best minds." It was thought undignified on the part of a former executive to descend to the ordinary level, the presidency having, presumably, lent a glory not in conformity with the dear and drab everyday activities of plain mortals. Here again Franklin tears to shreds these pretensions and incipient snobbery:
"Doctor Franklin: It seems to have been imagined by some that the returning to the mass of the people was degrading to the [chief] magistrate. This he thought was contrary to republican principles. In free governments the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them. And it would be imposing an unreasonable burden on them to keep them always in a state of servitude, and not allow them to become again one of the masters."
The old boy certainly had a sense of humor!
Despite mutual distrusts born of opposing interests, despite difference among the delegates as to experience, knowledge and temper, the convention wrought remarkable well. With its obvious defects, the Constitution nevertheless offered the only practical means for holding together the thirteen States on a reasonable common basis, though many had misgivings and doubts, which was also reflected in the vigorous opposition to its ratification. Among those who looked with apprehension on the new document was Thomas Jefferson, who was particularly alarmed because of the omission of the bill of rights. (It was largely due to his criticisms that Madison took the lead in securing the adoption of the ten first amendments.) And while today the Constitution is urged upon us by the plutocracy, and its intellectual poodle, as almost too sacred to be mentioned except to the accompaniment of repeated slaamings, Jefferson had no such superstitious reverence for the Constitution. Writing in 1816 at great length to one Samuel Kercheval (author of "The History of the Valley of Virginia," published in 1833). Jefferson said, in part:
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it.... Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. It is this preposterous idea which has lately deluged Europe in blood.... It is now forty years since the constitution of Virginia was formed. The same tables inform us, that, within that period, two-thirds of the adults then living are now dead. Have then the remaining third, even if they had the wish, the right to hold in obedience to their will, and to laws heretofore made by them, the other two-thirds, who, with themselves, compose the present mass of adults? If they have not, who has? The dead? But the dead have no rights. They are nothing; and nothing cannot own something. Where there is no substance, there can be no accident. This corporeal globe, and everything upon, belong to its present corporeal inhabitants, during their generation. They alone have a right to direct what is the concern of themselves alone, and to declare the law of that direction; and this declaration can only be made by their majority.... The voice of the whole people would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceable expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of the society. If this avenue be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation; and oppression, rebellion, reformation again; and so on forever."
Specifically, Jefferson urged the following amendments (apart from insisting on the "bill of rights"):
"The sum of these amendments is, (1) General suffrage. (2) Equal representation in the legislature. (3) An executive chosen by the people. (4) Judges elective or amovable. (5) Justices, Jurors, and sheriffs elective. (6) Ward divisions. And (7) Periodical amendments of the Constitution."
If such a program were presented today to the Al. Smith "Jeffersonians," a howl of denunciation would be set up by them and their masters and allies, the plutocracy, and their lackeys, and the proponent would be charged with undermining the Constitution, destroying the Supreme Court, and with being godless and "socialistic" to boot! Jefferson was particularly critical of the Judiciary, as we have shown elsewhere. In his letter to Samuel Kercheval he said:
"In the Judiciary, the judges of the highest courts are dependent on none but themselves. In England, where judges were named and removable at the will of a hereditary executive, from which branch most misrule was feared, and has flowed, it was a great point gained, by fixing them for life, to make them independent of that executive. But in a government founded on the public will, this principle operates in an opposite direction, and against that will. There, too, they were still removable on a concurrence of the executive and legislative branches. But we have made them independent of the nation itself."