Philadelphia Reflections

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

Related Topics

Philadelphia Legal Scene
The American legal profession grew up in this town, creating institutions and traditions that set the style for everyone else. Boston, New York and Washington have lots of influential lawyers, but Philadelphia shapes the legal profession.

American Finance After Robert Morris
Robert Morris can be fairly said to have made the American Revolution possible.

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.

Unwritten Constitutional Modification
It is so difficult to amend the Constitution, we mostly don't do it. Our system is to have the Supreme Court migrate slowly through several small adjustments, watching the country respond. Occasionally we have imported new principles, sometimes not entirely wise ones, adopted without the same seasoning.

Unwritten Features of the Constitution

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Considerable anger is sometimes directed toward Judges who find unintended provisions in the Constitution. On the other hand, James Madison and some other Founding Fathers were careful to design the Constitution to create outcomes that are far from explicit. {bottom quote}

In their early writings, James Madison and the Federalists who participated in drafting the Constitution repeatedly emphasized their allegiance to republican ideals, republicanism, and a republican form of government. This sounds a little odd today, since obviously they were not alluding to the present Republican and Democratic parties, which had not been created. It seems natural to us to regard a republican form of government as a gradual extension of a democratic one, when the size of the electorate grows so large it cannot be readily managed by voice votes in a town meeting, when therefore it becomes necessary to select proxies, or representatives. That description greatly underestimates the subtlety of the Founding Fathers.

{Gouverneur Robert Morris}}
Gouverneur Morris

Two centrally important members of the Convention, James Madison and Gouverneur Morris, felt especially strongly about a feature that does not occur to many others. When the voters in a particular district pick a representative, they are generally trying to choose one who will not only reflect issues of local importance, but one who will be able to persuade representatives of other districts to vote favorably. In this way, representatives tend to be selected who are taller, handsomer, more intelligent, richer, and more famous than the average person in the district being represented. Not by much, perhaps, and sometimes not at all. But as a general thing, the election of representatives tends to create a House of Representatives who are superior in certain ways to the average person being represented. When candidates and political parties engage in public combat, an impression is given that "politicians" are low characters, but that is in fact not usually true. Many factors will discourage the best candidates from participating in disagreeable contests, and many stratagems are employed in an attempt to elect the worse of two candidates. But it is seldom the case that a successful candidate is less attractive or talented than the average person in his district. Republican governments almost always are composed of more distinguished persons than average, exposed to greater temptations perhaps and subject to more detailed scrutiny.

Madison was so taken with this idea that he proposed the Senate should be made up of people drawn from the House of Representatives in a second round of voting, thereby further purifying the result. For various reasons this approach was not adopted by the Convention, but it does have a logic to it, and it clearly illustrates that Madison was looking for results not always explicitly stated. Gouverneur Morris, on the other hand, was openly enthusiastic for this outcome, because he perceived that the government would be largely concerned with the rules of commerce and therefore the selection process would likely lead to a Congress that was richer and more able in those qualities of importance to commerce. On the one hand, America would gain national advantage in the Industrial Revolution then under way, and it would anyway be highly desirable to select richer people. In his later years, Morris was given to blunt and open preference for the smart set, and is often described as a covert aristocrat. At the time of the Convention however it seems likely he was making a perfectly valid point which had escaped many of his colleagues.

James Madison

Both Madison and Morris were seriously concerned about a flaw in the republican form of government. They thought it obvious there would always be more poor people than rich ones. Without some effort to rebalance things, the poor would inevitably destroy the common good by using their numerical strength to redistribute wealth from rich to poor. In doing so, everyone would be worse off, even the poor. The poor were more likely to be uneducated and thus more likely to put their own enrichment ahead of almost any other issue, using their own grievances as a justification. There was almost universal agreement among other members of the Convention, because it was well recognized that the main need for a new constitution had grown out of the egregious conduct of state legislatures under the Articles of Confederation, particularly in watering the currency with paper money, and profligate use of debt forgiveness. It would be impossible to have a prosperous country if it suffered from instability, destruction of merit incentives and respect for the property of others. If debts were capriciously forgiven, no one would lend. With paper currency printed indiscriminately, savings would be impossible.

{Political parties}
Political parties

Accordingly, the Convention set about balancing these innate tendencies as well as it could. There was general agreement that election districts with larger population size tended to produce better candidates. Not only employing the reasoning that in a larger district it would be harder to elect an unknown, insignificant person, they felt they could also see examples justifying faith that a larger number of competing internal interests would hold each other in check within the person of their elected representative. An indirect way of accomplishing this was to limit the total number of districts while also providing they be of equal population. Political parties were soon to come forward as a way of raising campaign funds, but nevertheless a person of greater means would have an advantage in a larger district, and persons of greater means could be expected to have greater talents, or would in any event be more likely to resist the pressures for redistributing the wealth of the rich. Members of the Senate were selected by the state governments (at least, as long as state assent was necessary for ratification of the Constitution), but the 17th Amendment changed that to popular election, with a clear resulting decrease of state influence and power. On the other hand, a heavy majority of Senators in the 21st Century continue to be independently wealthy, thereby still accomplishing two original objectives of the founding fathers at one stroke.

{5th Amendment}
5th Amendment

The original working concept of the Federalists was that the skills and prestige of the rich and powerful would promote the owners of property into elective office, and their power would be joined to that of judges, presidents, cabinet officers, and military officers to form an effective counterbalance to the majority voting power of the poor or others who lacked property to protect. The Federalists differed with the anti-Federalists on the source of danger to be guarded against; one group feared impetuous and ignorant greed inciting the multitude, while the other group mainly feared corruption and power-hunger among the powerful few. But both political parties acknowledged that each potential danger was realistic to some degree, and hence there was reason to hope both sides could agree to a balance of power as a sensible check on each other. True, the Fifth Amendment's "takings" clause did specifically provide for just compensation for private property seized by government under Eminent Domain, and the Eleventh Amendment protected state governments against private lawsuits in Federal court, but these seem rather feeble additions to the protections against potential tyrannies of the unpropertied majority, as soon to be seen in the revolutionaries of France. Thus an initial assessment would have to be that protection of the minority with property against legislative assault by the unpropertied majority, was only strong in the short run. But it was likely to succumb in the long run to majoritarian tyranny, as the less educated gradually learned how to use their voting power. To strengthen the balance, therefore, resort was made to limiting the voting franchise to owners of property, and specifically to freehold property, without debt. There was shrewdness to this idea, since it hints at a perception that future class divisions might not lie between rich and poor, but between creditors and debtors. The voting exclusion of females, children and slaves was surely irrelevant to the main issue, based on the 18th Century assumption that any votes from those excluded would anyway be passive, dominated by the male head of household. In any event, the limitation of voting power to freehold property owners was apparently a step too far, and did not last long.

It is not certain how consciously another important feature was considered. State legislatures prior to the Constitution were held in such disdain, that stripping them of the power to corrupt truly important issues was almost a universal goal. Awkwardly, a peaceful transfer of state power over the military and the currency could not be accomplished without securing the agreement of the states who had to ratify the Constitution. This was accomplished by specifying the strictly limited powers of the new Federal government, and ceding control of everything not specifically mentioned, back to the states. One by one, the functions which were vitally important were debated and defended in detail; the list was short. Everything else remained under state control. To go about things in this way had one significant advantage over complete federal control, and Madison specifically anticipated it. If a state government abused its power, the victims of that abuse could escape by relocating to a neighboring state. The potential abuse easiest to understand was a burdensome tax rate. But all of the commercial rules of the new entities called corporations were even more to the point, since rich people could move whole factories and businesses if they perceived enough grievance at home. Powerful people had ways of getting the attention of state governments, their U.S. Congressmen and Senators, and the constituents who voted for them. In New Jersey at present, 4% of the taxpayers pay 76% of state taxes; it is easy to demonstrate that the 4% are moving to other states about as fast as they can. Whether by industry or individually, the residents of a state know very well what their alternatives are in other states, and corporations can negotiate them directly. Whether to bluffing or actually moving, state politicians respond to the threat and which has considerable indirect effect at a national level. The system of checks and balances extends far beyond the words of the Constitution, and well beyond the rules of the Federal government. Its unwritten power extends beyond the control of a handful of Supreme Court justices, spatting over original intent. Its potential weakness, of course, lies in the Court's relative inability to protect what is not stated to be any of its business.

{1787 founders}
1787 founders

One final point about the unspoken cleverness of our Constitution. Some of its most important powers were either unrecognized or intentionally unmentioned by its originators, to whom we look for original intent. After two centuries, we can see as they could not, that it was not merely the first time thirteen sovereign states gave up their power voluntarily and more or less cooperatively. In two hundred or more years, it begins to look as though nobody else can even imitate it successfully. One therefore hesitates to suggest changes of any sort, for fear some unrecognized balance will become unbalanced. Madison believed that increasing size leads to better government and better candidates for office; few would dispute that our Federal government generally does a better and more professional job than the fifty states which make it up. But stop to consider the United Nations. Invested with as much enthusiasm and much more idealism than our 1787 founders, the U.N. flounders and fumbles, and after fifty years must still be assessed to be a failure. Madison would seemingly have predicted that a bigger organization would be even stronger, even electing an assembly of giants. It hasn't worked out that way, and it is impossible to define what it lacks that the American Constitution has in abundance. By itself, this is the strongest possible argument for what is called original intent, but is really just a fearful plea to -- leave it alone.


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