Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Connecticut Invades Pennsylvania!
The rest of the world fights wars about national grievances, both recent and long past. Meanwhile, Connecticut once waged a serious war with Pennsylvania, and we don't even remember it.

..The Constitution
Our Constitution was not a proclamation written by a convention. It was a negotiated contract for uniting thirteen sovereign independent states. Nothing like that had ever been done voluntarily, and few nations have matched it in two hundred years, even with the use of force.

Albert Gallatin
A magnificent but largely forgotten man.

Foreign Affairs
This topic is under construction. Feel free to watch it evolve.

Government Organization
Government Organization

Pacifist Pennsylvania, Invaded Many Times
Pennsylvania was founded as a pacifist utopia, and currently regards itself as protected by vast oceans. But Pennsylvania has been seriously invaded at least six times.

Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.

Federalism Slowly Conquers the States
Thirteen sovereign colonies voluntarily combined their power for the common good. But for two hundred years, the new federal government kept taking more power for itself.

Designing the Convention

{Turning Colonies into States}
The Convention and the Continent

THE prevailing notion of the Constitutional Convention once depicted James Madison as seized with the idea of a merger of former colonies into a nation, subsequently selling that concept to George Washington. The General, by this account, was known to be humiliated by the way the Continental Congress mistreated his troops with worthless pay. But recent scholarship emphasizes that Washington noticed Madison in Congress becoming impassioned for raising taxes to pay the troops, was pleased, and reached out to the younger man as his agent. Madison seemed a skillful legislator; many other patriots had been disappointed with the government they had sacrificed to create, but Madison actually led protests within Congress itself. A full generation younger than the General and not at all charismatic, Madison's political effectiveness particularly attracted Washington's attention to him as a skillful manager of committees and legislatures. Washington was upset by Shay's Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which threatened to topple the Massachusetts government, but Shay's frontier disorder was only one example of general restlessness. There was a long background of repeated Indian rebellions in the southern region between Tennessee and Florida, coupled with uneasiness about what France and England were still planning to do to each other in North America. It looked to Washington as though the Articles of Confederation had left the new nation unable to maintain order along thousands of miles of western frontier. The British clearly seemed reluctant to give up their frontier forts as agreed by the Treaty of Paris, and very likely they were arming and agitating their former Indian allies. Innately rebellious Scotch-Irish, the dominant new settlers of the frontier, were threatening to set up their own government if the American one was too feeble to defend them from the Indians. The Indians for their part were coming to recognize that the former colonies were too weak to keep their promises. With the American Army scattered and nursing its grievances, the sacrifices of eight years of war looked to be in peril.

{top quote}
The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured ... by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union. {bottom quote}
A.Lincoln, First Inaugural

Even Washington's loyal friends were getting out of hand; Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris had cooked up the Newburgh cabal, hoping to provoke a military coup -- and a monarchy. Because they surely wanted Washington to be the new King, he could not exactly hate them for it. But it was not at all what he had in mind, and they were too prominent to be ignored. So he had to turn away from his closest advisers toward someone of ability but less stature and thus more likely to be obedient. It alarmed Washington that republican government might be discredited, leaving only a choice between a King and anarchy. Particularly when he reviewed shabby behavior becoming characteristic of state legislatures, something had to be done about a system which proclaimed states to be the ultimate source of sovereignty. Washington decided to get matters started, using Madison as his agent. If things went badly he could save his own prestige for other proposals, and Madison could scarcely defy him as Hamilton surely would. Washington could not afford to lose the support of the two Morrises, and still expect to accomplish anything major. Madison had been to college and could fill in some of the details; Washington merely knew he wanted stable government and he did not, he definitely did not, want a king. Many have since asked why he renounced being King so violently; it seems likely he was projecting a public rejection of the Hamilton/Morris concept in a way that did not attack them for proposing it. It was a somewhat awkward maneuver, and to some degree it backfired and trapped him. But Madison proved a good choice for the role, and things worked out reasonably well for the first few years.

{top quote}
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. {bottom quote}
J.Madison, Federalist#45

Madison was young, vigorous and effective; he held the wide spread perception of the Articles of Confederation as the source of the difficulty; and he was a reasonably close neighbor. He was active in Virginia politics at a time when Virginia held defensible claims to what would eventually become nine states. Negotiations for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 would be going on while the Constitutional Convention was in session, and Virginia was central to both discussions. After conversations at Mount Vernon, a plan was devised and put into action. Washington wanted a central government, strong enough to energize the new nation, but stopping short of a monarchy or military dictatorship. There were other things to expect from a good central government, but it was not initially useful to provoke quarrels. Madison had read many books, knew about details. Between them, these two friendly schemers narrowly convinced the country to go along. As things turned out, issues set aside for later eventually destroyed the friendship between Washington and Madison. Worse still, after seventy years the poorly resolved conflict between national unity and local independence provoked a civil war. Even for a century after that, periodic re-argument of which powers needed to revert to the states, which ones needed to migrate further toward central control, continued to roil a deliberately divided governance.

{Constitutional Convention}
Constitutional Convention

For immediate purposes, the central problem for the Virginia collaborators was to persuade thirteen state legislatures to give up power for the common good. The Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of the states for amendment. To pay lip-service to this obstacle, it would be useful to convene a small Constitutional Convention of newly-selected but eminent delegates, rather than face dozens of amendments tip-toeing through the Articles of Confederation, avoiding innumerable traps set by the more numerous Legislatures. In writing the Articles of Confederation, John Dickinson had been a loyal, skillful lawyer acting for his clients. They said Make it Perpetual, and he nearly succeeded. The chosen approach to modification was first to empower eminent leaders without political ambitions and thus, more willingness to consent to loss of power at a local level. Eventual ratification of the final result by the legislatures was definitely unavoidable, but to seek that consent at the end of a process was far preferable, because the conciliations could be offered alongside the bitter pills. Divided and quarrelsome states would be at a disadvantage in resisting a finished document which had already anticipated and defused legitimate objections, and was the handiwork of a blue-ribbon convention of prominent citizens and heroes. By this strategy, Washington and Madison took advantage of the sad fact that legislatures revert toward mediocrity, as eminent citizens experience its monotonous routine and decline to participate further in it, but will make the required effort for briefly glamorous adventures. Eminently successful citizens are somewhat over-qualified for the job, whose difficulties lesser time-servers are therefore motivated to exaggerate. To use modern parlance, framing the debate sometimes requires changing the debaters. In fact, although he had mainly initiated the movement, Washington refused to participate or endorse it publicly until he was confident the convention would be composed of the most prominent men of the nation. This venture had to be successful, or else he would save his prestige for something with more promise. Making it all work was a task for Madison and Hamilton, who would be replaced if it failed.

{John Dickinson}
John Dickinson

While details were better left hazy, the broad outline of a new proposal had to appeal to almost everyone. Since the new Constitution was intended to shift power from the states to the national government, it was vital for voting power in the national legislature to reflect districts of equal population size, selected directly by popular elections. That was what the Articles of Confederation prescribed. But no appointments by state legislatures, please. In the convention, it became evident that small states would fear being controlled by large ones through almost any arrangement at all. On the other hand small states were particularly anxious to be defended by a strong national army and navy, which requires large population size. England, France and Spain were stated to be the main fear, but small states feared big neighboring states, too. Since the Constitutional convention voted as states, small states were already in the strongest voting position they could ever expect, particularly since the Federalists at the convention needed their votes. Eventually, agreement was found for the bicameral compromise suggested by John Dickinson of Delaware, which consisted of a Senate selected and presumably voting as states, and a House of Representatives elected in proportion to population; with all bills requiring the concurrence of both houses. From the perspective of two centuries later, we can see that allowing state legislatures to redraw congressional districts gives them the power to "Gerrymander" their election outcomes, and hence restores to the populous states some of the internal Congressional power Washington and Madison were trying to take away from them. In the 21st Century, New Jersey is an example among a number of states where it can fairly be said that the decennial redistricting of congressional borders accurately predicts the congressional elections for the following ten years. The congressional seniority system then solidifies the power of local political machines over the core of Congressional politics. However, the irony emerges that Gerrymandering is impossible in the Senate, and hence legislature control over their U.S. Senators has been weak ever since the 17th Amendment established senatorial election by popular vote. That's eventually the opposite of the result originally conceded by the Constitutional Convention, but possibly in accord with the wishes of the Federalists who dominated it.

{Electoral College method for election of the President}
Electoral College Method for Election of the President

This evolving arrangement of the national legislative bodies seemed in 1787 an improvement over the system for state legislatures, because the Federalists believed larger legislatures would contain less corruption because they had more competing special interests to complain about it. There were skeptics then as now, who wished to weaken the tyranny of the majority so evident in the large states and in the British parliament. To satisfy them, power was redistributed to the executive and judicial branches, which were intentionally selected differently. Here arises the source of the Electoral College for election of the President. It gives greater weight to small states (and provokes a ruckus among large states whenever the national popular vote is close). Further balance in the bargaining was sought by lifetime appointments to the Judiciary, following selection by the President with the concurrence of the Senate. Without any anticipation in this early bargaining, an unexpectedly large executive bureaucracy promptly flourished under the control of the chief executive, lacking the republicanism so fervently sought by the founders everywhere else. This may be in harmony with the Federalist goal of removing patronage from legislature control, but Appropriations Committee chairmen have since found unofficial ways to assert pressure on the bureaucracy. It's quite an unbalanced expedient. Only in the case of the Defense department is the balancing will of the Constitutional Convention made clear: the President is commander in chief, only Congress can declare war. Although this difficult process was meant to discourage wars, it mainly discouraged the declaration of wars; other evasions emerged. From placing the command under an elected President, emerges a stronger implicit emphasis on civilian control of the military, loosely linked to the fairly meaningless legislative approval of initiating warfare. There have been more armed conflicts than "declarations" of war, but no one can say how many there might otherwise have been. And there have been no examples of a Congress rejecting a President's urging for war.

And that's about it for what we might call the first phase of the Constitution, or the Articles. In 1787 there arose a prevalent feeling that national laws should pre-empt state laws. In view of the need to get state legislatures to ratify the document however, this was withdrawn. The Constitution was designed to take as much power away from the states as could be taken without provoking them into refusing to ratify it. Since ratification did barely squeak through after huge exertions by the Federalists, the Constitution closely approaches the tolerable limit, and cannot be criticized for going no further. Since no other voluntary federation has gone even this far in the subsequent two hundred years, the margin between what is workable and what is achievable must be very narrow. Notice, however, the considerable difference between Congress having the power to overrule any state law, and declaring that any state law which conflicts with Federal law is invalid.

The details of this government structure were spelled out in detail in Sections I through IV. However, just to be sure, Section VI sums it all up in trenchant prose:

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Except for some housekeeping details, the structural Constitution ends here and can still be admired as sparse and concise. That final phrase about religious tests for office sounds like a strange afterthought, but in fact its position and lack of any possible ambiguity serve to remind the nation of grim experience that only religion has caused more problems than factionalism. Madison was particularly strong on this point, having in mind the undue influence the Anglican Church exerted as the established religion of Virginia. There are no qualifications; religion is not to have any part of government power or policy. By tradition, symbolism has not been prohibited. But government as an extension of religion is emphatically excluded, as is religion as an agency of government. Many failures of governments, past and present, can be traced to an irresolution to summon up this degree of emphasis about a principle too absolute to tolerate wordiness.


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