Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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...Ratification, Bill of Rights and Other Amendments
The 1787 Constitution lacked a Bill of Rights. Few except Madison himself were opposed to adding one, but many other delegates would have failed election without promising it. Negotiations at the Convention had proved so excitingly innovative that time ran out before the Convention had to adjourn with only a promise of a Bill of Rights, first thing. Almost immediately, political America was thrown into a year of state ratification conventions. Massachusetts initiated the concept of ratifying the Constitution, attached with eight or nine amendment proposals for the Bill of Rights. When the First Congress finally convened, it faced almost two hundred proposed amendments, and Madison made sure he was chairman of a committee to deal with them. Practically alone he pared them down to a succinct twelve which survived as the first order of business of the new Congress. Almost unnoticed, he made a deal with Oliver Ellsworth the leader of the Senate, to pass the Bill of Rights in exchange for passing the Senate's Judiciary Act in the House of Representatives. Out of this combined beginning, the power and scope of the Judiciary Branch was born. But while that is a subject for later chapters, Madison never achieved a more skillful moment in his political life, than this pivotal one.

Government Organization
Government Organization

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.

Repairing Constitutional Defects

James Madison

Out of several thousand proposed ones, there have only been 27 successful amendments to the Constitution in two centuries; it's been intentionally hard to get an amendment passed. The Federalists wanted no amendment process at all; the anti Federalists wanted repeat conventions in which the whole document would be thrown on the table for reconsideration. The original document probably turned out better because of this tension; if it's hard to change, you better do it right the first time. And amendments had better be short and clear.

There will of course have to be some mid-course adjustments, most notoriously the XII Amendment, correcting drafting amateurishness which promptly led to all sorts of confusion in the election of the President and Vice-President. It was almost a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy, with the appearance of a tie vote in the 1800 Electoral College between Jefferson and Burr. Since the election campaign had been conducted with the clear intention that Burr would be the vice president on a combined ticket, what was really overlooked was the possibility that ambition would so overwhelm a candidate that he would niggle and cavil about a technicality, essentially trying to steal an election from a running-mate. When Burr later killed Jefferson's enemy Hamilton in a duel, not only was Burr twice disgraced, but the whole episode terminated expectation that gentlemen in high office could always be depended on to do the right thing. Although philosophical debate can continue whether mankind is inherently good or inherently evil, American law now proclaims a presumed innocence of the accused, while privately assuming universal frailty of everybody.

Sometimes the amendment process has been brushed aside. William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office, making John Tyler the first vice-president to face certain ambiguities of the Constitution over exactly what had been intended. By that time, the tradition had grown that the vice-presidential candidate was usually a member of the second strongest faction within the winning party. Combining the two makes a stronger ticket but a secretly jealous one. When the contingency of presidential death in office actually happened, there were voices that the vice-president was intended to remain vice-president while assuming the extra powers and duties of the president. Rather than have a debate or a Supreme Court wrangle, Tyler settled any such question by simply making himself president, thus establishing an enduring tradition. This solution raised the nit-picker difficulty that still no official succession plan has been provided for a vacant vice-presidential post. Instead of fixing this flaw, it has been ignored. The courts rely on the precedent they have set, which can be defended as constitutionally enshrining common sense, or attacked as refusing to admit making an error.

Somewhat similar corrective themes continue through Amendments XXII (two term Presidential limit), XXV (Presidential succession), XXVII (Congressional compensation). At least when dealing with politicians, it is better to be too specific than too trusting.

The Fourteenth Amendment is clear enough in its many sentences, and noble in intent. But that intention to reverse the original Constitutional tolerance of slavery and the later injustices of Reconstruction is couched in broader language than necessary for that purpose alone. It thus weakens itself by hinting sanctimony, the inclusion of soaring principles. As the grievous wounds of the Civil War have gradually healed, Abolitionists as well as slavers now seem often to have acted with excess, and malice toward some. Others may honorably disagree with this view. Nevertheless, it is quite right to emphasize that just as undue deference should not be accorded to some, undue suspicion should not be inflicted on others.

By a series of amendments, the right to vote has been extended gradually over the centuries. Amendment XXIV (Abolition of poll taxes) probably had other motivations but has the effect of removing a restraint on the vote of poor people, Amendment XIX (Women's suffrage), XXIII (Presidential electors for the District of Columbia), and XXVI (Reducing the voting age to 18) can be characterized as removing discrimination, but also can be seen as a gradual extension of suffrage by those who already have it, to others they have mistrusted for reasons defensible and indefensible. The common goal is to achieve sufficient trust and education to make any restrictions seem unnecessary to everyone, while recognizing that continuing immigration of other cultures creates restlessness at the margins. Furthermore, poor people will outnumber rich ones for a long time to come and hence could potentially mistreat the minority. As long as only a minority of the enfranchised population at any level troubles to exercise its right to vote, the level of discomfort with this issue is enough to stimulate progress toward universal suffrage, while satisfaction with gradualism allows time to adjust to it.

Even Universal Franchise can be viewed with suspicion in a polarized political climate. Currently, a vigorous campaign for mandatory voter identification has been met with an equally vigorous denunciation as an attempt to deny the franchise to the poor. Typically, such proposals require the presentation of some government document with an identification photograph, such as a driver's license, to be presented at the voting place. The uproar this proposal has created has itself created suspicion of motive. Those who have experience with ballot-stuffing in elections refer to their common suspicions as "doing it the old-fashioned way." Citizens who make a few dollars as poll-watchers report that the traditional procedure is as follows:

At least a third of registered voters do not vote, even in a contested Presidential election, and in big-city off-year primary elections, sometimes a heavy majority do not. In the old-fashioned way, the poll watchers wait for dinner time in a sparsely-attended precinct, with no newspapers or poll-watchers of the opposite party present. The registration lists are produced, and every one who has not voted is voted for the desired candidate. The ruse is enhanced by driving in busloads of party loyalists, claiming to be the absent registered voter; and after casting their ballots, they are bussed off to another polling place to repeat the performance as often as there is time. Matching identification with the voter registration upsets this "good old way", in a manner which has nothing to do with inability to afford a driver's license, or similar lame excuses.

Amendment XVI (Income tax) may cause dissatisfaction because America has traditionally . But it really is just a mid-course adjustment in the legal system, since a court had declared income taxation to be unconstitutional, and the Constitution was simply amended to remedy that misapprehension. An implicit point, however, is that as the federal government preempts the sources of taxation for itself, the states are weakened by the need to appeal for revenue. The XVII Amendment (Direct election of Senators) rather severely curtailed the control of the states over the central government, but the XI Amendment strengthened the states by forcing the citizen of a different state to sue a state in its own court. The issue of state and federal control, so central to the original Constitution, nowadays seems to be fading in the public mind.

And finally, we are left to consider the first ten amendments, the so-called Bill of Rights. While Madison always inclined somewhat in that direction, and grew more defiantly libertarian as he got older, the situation he faced when the first Congress convened was daunting. Between final ratification and actual convening of much the same people into the first congress, the states submitted over two hundred petitions for rights to be included in the Constitution by amendment. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry had been tireless in stirring up the demand for rights to protect the individual from the government. Much of this reflected the French Revolution which went on for ten years during this period, and drew on affection for France for its assistance to the struggling colonies during their rebellion against Great Britain. Others, of course, only needed to look toward George Washington, who had once heard the screams of Braddock's soldiers as they were tortured to death by the French and their Indian allies at Fort Duquesne. Washington had earlier and personally started the French and Indian War. John Adams was not pleased by torch lit mobs breaking windows in Philadelphia in sympathy with France. So, as the main leader in the new congress, Madison had the task of satisfying everybody about the Bill of Rights he had promised. It must be acknowledged that he did a masterful job. Not everybody was convinced it was a natural right of mankind to give everyone everything it might seem desirable to have. Somewhere in this arose the accepted definition of a right as something everyone would give to others, in order to have for himself. Madison was forced to search for common denominators, the maximum -- and minimum -- number of rights which everyone would agree to. It offended his constitutional craftsmanship to see Congress drowned in a rush to confer greater force than a law by saying the same thing in an amendment. Indeed, when some advocates strove to make a dubious right into a constitutional right, almost by definition it was not something everyone would agree to in order to have for himself. Madison did things in his life that may be questioned, but his achievement of condensing this hotch-potch of proposals into ten simple declarations, and then getting a raucous inexperienced congress to pass it -- is a political achievement to be marveled at. Even two centuries later, anyone who proposed opening up the Bill of Rights and recasting it in conformity with more modern understanding, would be hooted out of the room. May that ever remain the case.

Amendments IX (Non-enumerated rights) and X (Rights reserved to the states) deserve a different emphasis. Here lay the promise that the federal government had been proposed to achieve only those things a central government could achieve better; the states could do everything else. For this to be workable, the enumerated rights had to be comprehensive enough to satisfy the Federalists, and not include anything the anti-Federalists thought was improper. The anti Federalists knew very well this included everything the Federalists could possibly get the states to agree to, so the border was inevitably contentious. They got it wrong with slavery, and some of the amendments made mid-course adjustments. Boundary warfare would continue indefinitely in congress, and sometimes wars and depressions cause proponents to change positions. But the document, freely agreed to by formerly sovereign states, has endured as nothing even remotely comparable has endured.

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