Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Westphalia: Church Politics Adjusts Boundaries, Then Everything Changes
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation-state.

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The Father of His Country

The convention received bills by the hundreds, but most of the Constitutional founders were members of its First Congress, so it was reasonable to appoint James Madison as chairman of the committee to pare it down to ten or amendments. In view of strong opinion there should be a Bill of Rights (Madison was known to be opposed), and in conformity with the strong opinion, The convention received bills by the hundreds. Most of the Constitutional founders were members of its First Congress, so it was inevitable to appoint James Madison as chairman of the committee to pare instructions down.

Opposition by the Virginians (by far the largest state), to all unnecessary forms of centralized governance, the committee vote was for ten Amendments. The unseen hand of Patrick Henry was heavily felt-- Congress should pass no law of any sort unless it was clearly necessary to defend the nation and tax it sufficiently to conduct a war. Everything else was to be handled by the state legislatures. The bill of Rights was a compromise between hundreds of shouts to that effect and a simple one-line prohibition. That is, it would have been a single sentence if Patrick Henry had his way; it would have contained hundreds of details in another. Virginia was the biggest state and had the loudest voice -- do you want a union, or don't you? In the background was John Dickinson, saying the same thing on behalf of the smaller states. Neither Dickinson nor Patrick Henry was on the floor, but theirs were the only two voices that counted. Washington and Hamilton got the bare essence of what they asked for, not a scrap more.

, Washington was a tenth-generation Virginian, an athlete, a strong Mason, and person of considerable presence, a man's man. He was the Father of his Country, he was rich and could have anything he wanted. He more or less started the French and Indian War. He had then defeated the mighty British empire copying the native tribes in guerilla warfare, then renouncing any and all personal reward for it. It must have then been supremely satisfying to have this acknowledged by the King of England, himself. But this is plainly what he wanted and he wanted it badly enough to renounce all praise for it, against the opposition of most of the Virginia grandees. He had suggested and supervised the first and best Constitution in the western world. He had been handed a blank slate for the duties and responsibilities as President, and neither Patrick Henry nor the Lees nor Thomas Jefferson dared deny him his right to it. He was indeed the Father of His Country, and he knew it. Not even the Virginia grandees had the courage to thwart his minimal demands. He was even a slaveholder who freed his own slaves, at least to the extent it was useful to have more credentials.

So to save face, they gave him his very minimal suggestions for a workable Constitution. And don't you know, it proved to be a better plan for being contested. Patrick Henry deserves more credit than he gets. And so does the Civil War. Any plan which can, almost by itself, defeat those silly amendments, and those preposterous theories of some foreign dictators, deserves its full measure of praise.

Originally published: Monday, August 12, 2019; most-recently modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2020

 

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