Constitution Sunday: “An Old Whig” [George Bryan et al.] I

“An Old Whig” [George Bryan et al.] I

Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), October 12, 1787

Following is a series of excerpts from George Bryan’s article in the Independent Gazetteer:

“And after the constitution is once ratified, it must remain fixed until two thirds of both the houses of Congress shall deem it necessary to propose amendments; or the legislatures of two thirds of the several states shall make application to Congress for the calling a convention for proposing amendments, which amendments shall not be valid till they are ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by Congress.—This appears to me to be only a cunning way of saying that no alteration shall ever be made; so that whether it is a good constitution or a bad constitution, it will remain forever unamended. Lycurgus, when he promulgated his laws to the Spartans, made them swear that they would make no alterations in them until he should return from a journey which he was then about to undertake:—He chose never to return, and therefore no alterations could be made in his laws. The people were made to believe that they could make trial of his laws for a few months or years, during his absence, and as soon as he returned they could continue to observe them or reject at pleasure. Thus this celebrated Republic was in reality established by a trick. In like manner the proposed constitution holds out a prospect of being subject to be changed if it be found necessary or convenient to change it; but the conditions upon which an alteration can take place, are such as in all probability will never exist. The consequence will be that, when the constitution is once established, it never can be altered or amended without some violent convulsion or civil war.”

“As to any expectation of two thirds of the legislatures concurring in such a request, it is if possible, still more remote. The legislatures of the states will be but forms and shadows, and it will be the height of arrogance and presumption in them, to turn their thoughts to such high subjects. After this constitution is once established, it is too evidence that we shall be obliged to fill up the offices of assemblymen and councillors, as we do those of constables, by appointing men to serve whether they will or not, and fining them if they refuse. The members thus appointed, as soon as they can hurry through a law or two for repairing highways or impounding cattle, will conclude the business of their sessions as suddenly as possible; that they may return to their own business.”

“The different legislatures will have no communication with one another from the time of the new constitution being ratified, to the end of the world. Congress will be the great focus of power as well as the great and only medium of communication from one state to another. The great, and the wise, and the mighty will be in possession of places and offices; they will oppose all changes in favor of liberty; they will steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents. The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.”

“For the present I shall conclude with recommending to my countrymen not to be in haste, to consider carefully what we are doing. It is our own concern; it is our own business; let us give ourselves a little time at least to read the proposed constitution and know what it contains; for I fear that many, even of those who talk most about it have not even read it, and many others, who are as much concerned as any of us, have had no opportunity to read it. And it is certainly a suspicious circumstance that some people who are presumed to know most about the new constitution seem bent upon forcing it on their countrymen without giving them time to know what they are doing.”

George Bryan’s Antifederalist position is clear from the outset. His Whig position, evidenced by his opposition to any hint of tyranny, was typical for Antifederalists. There was a deep suspicion that the Constitution was simply another tool for tyranny, and despite its many protections against tyranny, it could be manipulated too easily. These fears were not without basis, given the early Americans’ intimate knowledge of British tyranny and its intricacies.

However, Bryan’s skepticism takes him further than necessary, most modern Americans would agree. In fact, the system set up for amending the Constitution has worked well indeed, facilitating the Constitution’s amending 27 times. With each amendment, the Constitution has extended, clarified, and strengthened protections for citizens, and the process has worked at every turn. The amending process is undoubtedly arduous. It must be. One of the defining successes for America is its adaptability to changing economies, shifts in power, and revolutions in norms. But that adaptability must have limitations, for fear of government being too dynamic as to be unstable. The Constitution, through its arduous amendment process laid out by Bryan, ensures that stability, while also leaving open the path for Americans to make changes as they deem necessary.

While Bryan emphasized needing more time, and this was certainly an understandable position, he exaggerated the rigidity of the Constitution. Given the fact that the American people have added 27 amendments to the Constitution without civil war at every turn (but at one turn), Bryan’s deeply rooted doubts about the document were ultimately misplaced.

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