Constitution Sunday: “An Old State Soldier” I

Virginia Independent Chronicle (Richmond)

January 16, 1788

A former soldier sought to inform his fellow Virginians about the merits of the draft Constitution, and his fellow Virginians would be incorrect if they assumed that he was merely a soldier and would know nothing about the wisdom needed for setting up a new government. He described himself as a “fellow-citizen whose life has once been devoted to your service, and knows no other interest now than what is common to you all, solicits your attention for a new few moments on the new plan of government submitted to your consideration.” He was all too aware that some of the more intellectual arguments had already been made but also that his perspective would serve “to contradict some general opinions which may have grown out of circumstances too dangerous to our reputations to remain unanswered.”

To the old state soldier, many of the objections to the Constitution could be explained by the way that people viewed the nascent country and the world overall. The Constitution struck a balance between the tensions that inevitably arise in a society. The soldier wrote: “FREEDOM has its charms, and authority its use—but there are certain points beyond which neither can be stretched without falling into licentiousness, or sinking under oppression.” And what the country needed was this balance for being too greedy or too stingy with securing freedoms had unpredictable, undesirable consequences: “he who grasps at more than he can possibly hold will retain less than he could have handled with ease had he been moderate at first.” There is always a question of how much freedom should be sought and maintained, but this was a moment when striking a balance was crucial; later generations of Americans could flesh out the details of which freedoms they wanted and where they would draw their limits, but they could only do that if there was some level of moderation in what the founders put into the Constitution.

Perhaps most fundamentally and most controversially, the system that the Constitution proposed was one that would not resemble the aristocracies of Europe but would be one that fostered equality regardless of class. This was not only a novel concept but one that alarmed the traditionalists in society as the monarchs and aristocrats of Europe had an appearance of fostering a stable system albeit a system that favored them—the monarchs and aristocrats—and perhaps few others. But America had a chance to be different: it would be an experiment and one that changed the dynamics of oppression; it would not be a place where a bloodline or a separate class of society oppressed but rather a society where oppression could come from fellow people or even oneself. The soldier wrote, “there is but little prospect of our becoming your tyrants, since misery and wretchedness are seldom called in to share the dignities of oppression.” He continued: “In short, as there is nothing in this constitution itself that particularly bargains for a surrender of your liberties, it must be your own faults if you become enslaved.”

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