Reflections on Three Constitutions
The central difficulty in uniting sovereign Unions is to persuade nations of differing sizes and history, to agree to a uniform set of basic principles; one size seldom fits all. The double-voting solution, proposed by John Dickinson, was a major refinement of the principle of majority rule, allowing small states to co-exist with big ones without being overwhelmed. It slows agreement, but it strengthens the product.
This book describes how America organized thirteen independent republics into a unified republic, which (except for one major misstep of civil war) has remained intact for two centuries. The Constitution of 1787 learned a great deal from the mistakes of the evolving 1776-81 Articles of Confederation, and the European Union now struggles under difficult economic circumstances to derive what it usefully can from the combined insights of the two American Constitutions, applied to unique European circumstances. Obviously, Europe must look to other sources as well, but some American ideas are worth considering for whether they have universal value.
American unification was voluntarily and peacefully achieved, although the Union was only preserved by fighting a civil war over slavery ethics and economics. In the long process of adjustment, the United States noticed uneasily how seldom other willing nations matched its continued unification, though many attempted it. The American Union has since grown from thirteen to fifty subordinate states more or less peaceably, although a couple of possessions were permitted to withdraw. The reasons underlying this creditable record remain disputed, so Americans are notoriously reluctant to contemplate even minor changes in the rules. Accused of exceptionalism, we actually are a little uncertain we could do it again. The Constitution was a written contract, defining much more what America and its rulers expected of each other, than traditional constitutions. Ancient national constitutions tended to be attempts at defining national culture more than stating national axioms. It was hard to say at the beginning, what would become seen as an important innovation, what would be just a variation of style.
This book attempts a few innovations, itself. Its content attempts to follow the design of the Directed Studies Course of Yale University, developed by David Kagan, in which a subject is examined through mixing several academic disciplines. In this case they are history, literature, and computer composition. If I were a few years younger, it might become a component of a longer history of Philadelphia, a city which placed a unique stamp on America. It is also a book which leans heavily on the new powers of the electronic computer, allowing the author to control most of the functions which traditionally have been ceded to other disciplines of a publishing house. Since blended disciplines are more effective when unobtrusive, technical intricacies of electronic publishing are to be published separately. Students of electronics may wish to debate in another forum how computer advances, while surely able to destroy print publishing, must stretch considerably further before they can replace it. My older son, George Ross Fisher IV, is the visionary of program approaches invisibly utilized in the body of the present book.
And finally let me doff my cap to a man I wish I had the longevity to emulate, but concluded that no one has enough longevity to expand his approach to long stretches of history. Leopold von Ranke was widely acclaimed as the greatest historian of his day (1795- 1886), and by some has even been called the "father of modern source-based history". Reading histories written during his lifetime, I appreciate his impatience with careless history derived from tertiary sources, or even from conjecture and hearsay. Compared with Herodotus or Thucydides, or Edward Gibbon, history was certainly in decline during von Ranke's time, although it is not clear that inaccessibility of primary sources was the main cause. By insisting "No documents, No history", however, von Ranke sets an unattainable standard for those like me who wish to start a history career well past the age of eighty. Von Ranke himself began a 9-volume world history at the age of eighty-one, and almost completed it. Unfortunately, I had no formal training in writing history, and am surrounded by more entertainments and distractions than were available in the Nineteenth century. Nevertheless, secondary history sources are now of much higher quality than Ranke found them, and electronic easy access greatly extends everyone's reach to them. I am particularly impressed by the fact-finding of Wikipedia, and see no reason not to recognize it as a mostly dependable source. With electronic bibliographies available today, and accepting their mixed error content on the primary level, one can assemble by cross-checking a documentation approaching von Ranke's standards, ultimately reflecting the work of vastly more contributors. Since my contemplated scope of review from William Penn to Grace Kelly, is probably greater than my lifespan, I plan to leave a little money in my estate to complete essential parts of it without putting a burden on my family. History is never complete, but with practice it is possible to skirt matters which are dubious, or excise them when they surface. Everything else rests on opinion, and I take full responsibility for a lifetime of contrarian opinions, openly expressed. The critics of Leopold von Ranke debated whether his strange expression in German ("wie es eigentlich gewesen ist") was intended to mean he tried to present only events that really happened, or whether he only sought to avoid unsupported abstractions. In our empowered but less romantic era, such issues seem no less desirable, but somehow less important.
- Articles of Confederation The Articles of Confederation were written by John Dickinson, modified by others. Officially unratified for five years, the country was ruled under them in Philadelphia, for thirteen. They taught many lessons, which we sometimes forget we had experienced.
- ..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.
- ...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.
- 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.
- ..Tax and Fiscal Issues in the Constitution, Morris (1) For some founding fathers, monetary issues were all that mattered.
- .American and European Unions, Compared(1) The (1648) Treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation-state by respecting sovereignty within agreed boundaries. Soon, everyone had a sovereign King. Today, Europeans live in republics, but wish to unite for economic benefits. Like others however, they found that hard to do, and so began with monetary union, alone. Unlucky timing: world monetary crisis suddenly struck.
- ..Constitution and Court Forget all those lawyer jokes you hear. The American legal profession can rightly be proud of the Federal Court System, an achievement of the whole profession. America may be legalistic and overlawyered, but that reflects the rule of law dominated by lawyers. Curiously, the leader of this creation, John Marshall, was not so much a legal theoretician as a relentless Federalist lawyer, determined to reshape the legal profession to be worthy of power.
- ...Trying Out the New Constitution George Washington's first term as President was much like a continuation of the Constitutional Convention, with many of the same participants.
- ...Pre-Convention Events We had a varsity team, but we needed a plan.
- ...Authorship of the Constitution There were seventy invited delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Fifty-five attended the sessions, and thirty-nine signed it. We believe the main contributions were made by seven or eight men. But you can never tell, for certain.
- Confederation Congress, 1781-1789 New topic 2012-08-06 12:22:08 description