Constitution Sunday: Rawlins Lowndes and Edward Rutledge Debate in the South Carolina Legislature

January 16, 1788

A government must provide its people—all of its people, varied as they are—with a structure that fosters self-preservation. In the South, for a long stretch of time, that sense of self-preservation was crucial. There was no denying that the slave economy was central to its existence that it was therefore always going to have tension with northern states. This was as true in 1788 as in 1861. And in 1788, there was rampant, raging debate surrounding the draft Constitution. In South Carolina’s legislature, two men—Rawlins Lowndes and Edward Rutledge—debated the merits of that draft, taking different sides on whether it warranted adoption.

For Lowndes, the status quo was far more preferred than leaping into the unknown. He said, “The security of a republic is jealousy; for its ruin may be expected from unsuspecting security; let us not therefore receive this proffered system with implicit confidence, as carrying with it the stamp of superior perfection; rather let us compare it with what we already possess with what we are offered for it.” The structure of the government itself under the Constitution showed why southerners could not trust it: by design, the northern states formed a majority in the House of Representatives; the North would inevitably divest the South “of any pretensions to the title of a republic.” And thus the federal government would “regulate commerce ad infinitum” and southern states would be relegated to a position equal to that of a corporation, paying taxes and excise but when expressing dismay being told: “Go, you are totally incapable of managing for yourselves—go mind your private affairs—trouble not yourself with public concerns—mind your business.”

Rutledge, on the other hand, was appalled. He thought the state of the confederation was too weak to continue and demonstrated both the faults of the Articles of Confederation and the wisdom of the Constitution. It was “so very inadequate to the purposes of the union, that unless it was materially altered, the Sun of American Independence would indeed soon set—never to rise again.” It was a confederation that could not obtain security for its commerce anywhere in the world, could not obtain “one shilling for the discharge of the most honorable obligations,” and could not garner “a single power in Europe” to lend it money. The fears of abuse of power were not justified and tended to think only of the worst of men; not the best. Lowndes’ opinion that the people would bring into power “the most worthless and the most negligent part of the community” led listeners to the logical conclusion of withholding “all power from all public bodies.” This could not be the solution. As with any government, this one would have to exist with the threat of people abusing their power. And thus the flaw lay in those people, not the framers of the draft Constitution.

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