Constitution Sunday: A Further Reply to Elbridge Gerry: “A Landholder” [Oliver Ellsworth] V

A Further Reply to Elbridge Gerry: “A Landholder” [Oliver Ellsworth] V

Connecticut Courant (Hartford), December 3, 1787

Following are excerpts from Oliver Ellsworth’s article, published in the¬†Connecticut Courant:

“The vice-president is not an executive officer, while the president is in discharge of his duty; and when he is called to preside his legislative voice ceases. In no other instance is there even the shadow of blending or influence between the two departments. We are further told ‘that the judicial department, or those courts of law, to be instituted by Congress, will be oppressive.'”

“We allow it to be possible, but from whence arises the probability of this event. State judges may be corrupt, and juries may be prejudiced and ignorant, but these instances are not common; and why shall we suppose they will be more frequent under a national appointment and influence, when the eyes of a whole empire are watching for their detection.”

“Their courts are not to intermeddle with your internal policy, and will have cognizance only of those subjects which are placed under the control of a national legislature. It is as necessary there should be courts of law and executive officers, to carry into effect the laws of the nation; as that there be courts and officers to execute the laws made by your state assemblies. There are many reasons why their decisions ought not to be left to courts instituted by particular states.”

“As we have every reason to think this system was honestly planned, we ought to hope it may be honestly and justly executed. I am sensible that speculation is always liable to error. If there be any capital defects in this constitution, it is most probable that experience alone will discover them. Provision is made for an alteration if on trial it be found necessary.”

“When your children see the candor and greatness of mind, with which you lay the foundation, they will be inspired with equity to finish and adorn the superstructure.”

These excerpts from Ellsworth’s article perhaps best capture the cautious, yet optimistic approach that many Federalists had in supporting the Constitution. There was a keen awareness that the Constitution was not a perfect document. It would not be a document that would go unaltered, which was anticipated and accounted for in the document itself (See Art. V of the Constitution).

Ellsworth was also clear in stating that he saw the interaction of the branches of government as a positive, necessary component of good governing. He understood there would be problems, but he also understood that the American public would be scrutinizing the government’s actions. Transparency was implicit.

If nothing else, Americans should remember that, as Ellsworth stated, experience alone can reveal the defects of our government, and when those defects are located, Americans must act to remedy them. The Constitution, and the American system of government, only survives and thrives because there is belief in the system. Every generation of Americans must ensure that the system is continued, tailoring the system to provide for their generation’s needs and wants, as that is the fundamental purpose of government. So long as that happens, the Constitution will remain intact and the American system of government will continue to prosper.

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