Constitution Sunday: On The Likely Failure Of Liberty, Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., to Governor George Clinton

January 14, 1788

Daily Advertiser (New York)

Revising the Articles of Confederation was always going to be a difficult task. The system that the Articles erected was one where the states pulled the strings of a marionette puppet of a federal government; without the states, the federal government was nothing: for instance, although the Confederation Congress could impose a tax, it lacked any independent power of enforcement and would need unanimous approval of the state legislatures. Nonetheless, when delegates met in Philadelphia in a convention that resulted in the draft Constitution, they had originally set out to revise those Articles of Confederation, and, by amendment, to refine the existing system into a more functional, more effective government.

To Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr., both delegates to the Constitutional Convention, there was no more authority vested in the delegates but to revise, by amendment, the Articles of Confederation. In that spirit, the Constitution—including the debate of its many articles, sections, and clauses—was illegitimate. Yates and Lansing, in a letter to New York Governor George Clinton, registered their “decided and unreserved dissent” to the Constitution, but that dissent would not have been limited to the Constitution: “we must candidly confess, that we should have been equally opposed to any system, however modified, which had in object the consolidation of the United States into one Government.”

The problems, for Yates and Lansing, began with the fact that New York State would be subservient to the federal government, and those problems extended to the federal government “pervading every part of the United States,” an impracticable concept and one that could not extend “essential benefits to all.” This was a system that was tending “to deprive the State Government of its most essential rights of Sovereignty, and to place it in a dependent situation.” This was a fundamental change, and it was a change that required the full consent of the people, not just their legislatures. Further, wrote Yates and Lansing, it was not a transparent gathering: if there had been a clear expression that the Convention was for creating a Constitution rather than revising the Articles, perhaps the attention of the people would have been differently directed.

In any event, the problem was perhaps not in the deception but in the design. A federal government, “however guarded by declarations of rights or cautionary provisions, must unavoidably, in a short time, be productive of the destruction of the civil liberty of such citizens who could be effectually coerced by it; by reason of the extensive territory of the United States; the dispersed situation of its inhabitants, and the insuperable difficulty of controling or counteracting the views of a set of men (however unconstitutional and oppressive their acts might be) possessed of all the powers of Government, and who, from their remoteness from their constituents, and necessary permanency of office, could not be supposed to be uniformly actuated by an attention to their welfare and happiness; that however wise and energetic the principles of the general Government might be, the extremities of the United States could not be kept in due submission and obedience to its laws at the distance of many hundred miles from the seat of Government; that if the general Legislature was composed of so numerous a body of men as to represent the interest of all the inhabitants of the United States in the usual and true ideas of representation, the expence of supporting it would become intolerably burthensome, and that if a few only were invested with a power of legislation, the interests of a great majority of the inhabitants of the United States must necessarily be unknown, or if known even in the first stages of the operations of the new Government, unattended to.”

Yates and Lansing maintained that that the Constitution, as written, “cannot afford that security to equal and permanent liberty, which we wished to make an invariable object of our pursuit.” For them, the Constitution was irreversibly, irredeemably flawed, and while it began with the way in which it came about, it continued to the basic structure; for them, the states needed to maintain their sovereignty and the fact that they didn’t under the draft Constitution all but ensured that there would be a federal government that would lead to the loss of liberty and the downfall of public happiness in the citizenry.

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