Constitutional Convention of 1787

Author:John P. Roche

Page 517

Over the last two centuries, the work of the Constitutional Convention and the motives of the Founding Fathers have been analyzed under a number of different ideological auspices. To one generation of historians, the hand of God was moving in the assembly; under a later dispensation, the dialectic replaced the Deity: "relationships of production" moved into the niche previously reserved for Love of Country. Thus, in counterpoint to the Zeitgeist, the Framers have undergone miraculous metamorphoses: at one time acclaimed as liberals and bold social engineers, today they appear in the guise of sound Burkean conservatives.

The "Fathers" have thus been admitted to our best circles; the revolutionary generation that confiscated all Tory property in reach and populated New Brunswick with outlaws has been converted into devotees of "consensus" and "prescriptive rights." Indeed, there is one fundamental truth about the Founding Fathers that every generation of Zeitgeisters has done its best to obscure: they were first and foremost superb democratic politicians. They were political men?not metaphysicians, disembodied conservatives, or agents of history?and, as recent research into the nature of American politics in the 1780s confirms, they were required to work within a democratic framework. The Philadelphia Convention was not a council of Platonic guardians working within a manipulative, predemocratic framework; it was a nationalist reform caucus which had to operate with great delicacy and skill in a political cosmos full of enemies to achieve the one definitive goal?popular approbation.

Perhaps the time has come, to borrow WALTON HAMILTON'S fine phrase, to promote the Framers from immortality to mortality, to give them credit for their magnificent demonstration of the art of democratic politics: they made history and they did it within the limits of consensus. What they did was hammer out a pragmatic compromise that would both bolster the "national interest" and be acceptable to the people. What inspiration they got came from collective experience as politicians in a democratic society. As JOHN DICKINSON put it to his fellow delegates on August 13, "Experience must be our guide. Reason may mislead us."

When the Constitutionalists went forth to subvert the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION, they employed the mechanisms of political legitimacy. Although the roadblocks confronting them were formidable, they were also endowed with certain political talents. From 1786 to 1790 the Constitutionalists used those talents against bumbling, erratic behavior by the opponents of reform. Effectively, the Constitutionalists had to induce the states, by democratic techniques, to cripple themselves. To be specific, if New York should refuse to join the new Union, the project was doomed; yet before New York was safely in, the reluctant state legislature had to take the following steps: agree to send delegates to the Convention and maintain them there; set up the special ratifying convention; and accept that convention's decision that New York should ratify the

Page 518

Constitution. The same legal hurdles existed in every state.

The group that undertook this struggle was an interesting amalgam of a few dedicated nationalists and self-interested spokesmen of various parochial bailiwicks. Georgians, for example, wanted a strong central authority to provide military protection against the Creek Confederacy; Jerseymen and Connecticuters wanted to escape from economic bondage to New York; Virginians sought a system recognizing that great state's "rightful" place in the councils of the Republic. These states' dominant political figures therefore cooperated in the call for the Convention. In other states, the cause of national reform was taken up by the "outs" who added the "national interest" to their weapons systems; in Pennsylvania, for instance, JAMES WILSON'S group fighting to revise the state Constitution of 1776 came out four-square behind the Constitutionalists.

To say this is not to suggest that the Constitution was founded on base motives but to recognize that in politics there are no immaculate conceptions. It is not surprising that a number of diversified private interests promoted the nationalist public interest. However motivated, these men did demonstrate a willingness to compromise in behalf of an ideal that took shape before their eyes and under their ministrations.

What distinguished the leaders of the Constitutionalist caucus from their enemies was a "continental" approach to political, economic, and military issues. Their institutional base of operations was the Continental Congress (thirty-nine of the fifty-five designated delegates to the Convention had served in Congress), hardly a locale that inspired respect for the state governments. One can surmise that membership in the Congress had helped establish a continental frame of reference, particularly with respect to external affairs. The average state legislator was probably about as concerned with foreign policy then as he is today, but congressmen were constantly forced to take the broad view of American prestige, and to listen to the reports of Secretary JOHN JAY and their envoys in Europe. A "continental" ideology thus developed, demanding invigoration of our domestic institutions to assure our rightful place in the international arena. Indeed, an argument with the force of GEORGE WASHINGTON as its incarnation urged that our very survival in the Hobbesian jungle of world politics depended upon a reordering and strengthening of our national SOVEREIGNTY.

MERRILL JENSEN seems quite sound in his view that to most Americans, engaged as they were in self-sustaining agriculture, the "Critical Period" was not particularly critical. The great achievement of the Constitutionalists was their ultimate success in convincing the elected representatives of a majority of the white male population that change was imperative. A small group of political leaders with a continental vision and essentially a consciousness of the United States' international impotence, was the core of the movement. To their standard rallied other leaders' parallel ambitions. Their great assets were active support from George Washington, whose prestige was enormous; the energy and talent of their leadership; a communications "network" far superior to the opposition's; the preemptive skill which made "their" issue The Issue and kept the locally oriented opposition on the defensive; and the new and compelling credo of American nationalism.

Despite great institutional handicaps, the Constitutionalists in the mid-1780s got the jump on the local oppositions with the demand for a Convention. Their opponents were caught in an old political trap: they were not being asked to approve any specific reform but only to endorse a meeting to discuss and recommend needed reforms. If they took a hard line, they were put in the position of denying the need for any changes. Moreover, because the states would have the final say on any proposals that might emerge from the Convention, the Constitutionalists could go to the people with a persuasive argument for "fair play."

Perhaps because of their poor intelligence system, perhaps because of overconfidence generated by the failure of all previous efforts to alter the Articles, the opposition awoke too late. Not only did the Constitutionalists manage to get every state but Rhode Island to appoint delegates to Philadelphia but they also dominated the delegations. The fact that the delegates to Philadelphia were appointed by state governments, not elected by the people, has been advanced as evidence of the "undemocratic" character of the gathering, but this argument is specious. The existing central government under the Articles was considered a creature of the states?not as a consequence of elitism or fear of the mob but as a logical extension of STATES ' RIGHTS doctrine. The national government was not supposed to end-run the state legislatures and make direct contact with the people.

With delegations named, the focus shifted to Philadelphia. While waiting for a quorum to assemble, JAMES MADISON drafted the so-called VIRGINIA PLAN. This...

To continue reading