Constitution Sunday: “Americanus” [John Stevens, Jr.] VII

Daily Advertiser (New York)

January 21, 1788

With the draft Constitution being circulated and reviewed by throughout the country, Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House of Delegates detailing his objections—of which there were many—to adopting the Constitution as written. Given his stature as a governor, his objections would inevitably bring people to adopt his way of thinking, foster debate, and awaken proponents of the Constitution to defend the document, explaining its merits and why adopting the Constitution was warranted despite Governor Randolph’s objections. One such defender was John Stevens, Jr., and he took on the governor’s objections in an article published in New York’s Daily Advertiser.

First, Governor Randolph argued that “[a]ll ambiguities of expression [needed] to be precisely explained.” He was getting at the fact that the Constitution had ambiguities—parts of it that were unclear and needed clearing up before it could be approved, so the reasoning went, or else no one would know the specifics of how this government would operate—and thus those ambiguities should be addressed: the citizens and the officials in government needed to have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and the powers that the people bestowed on the government; if they didn’t, there was a likelihood of inefficiency and the looming specter of officials abusing power. Stevens disagreed. The Convention that labored and birthed the draft Constitution had met for a gestation period of four months and applied itself to crafting the Constitution into a document embodying clarity and brevity—as much as those concepts could come to a document founding a complex government arranging federal powers in not only coexistence but delicate balance with state powers. It was this context that caused Stevens to ask: “what reason have we to expect that a subsequent Convention will succeed any better”? Perhaps a second convention would merely toss around the same ideas, arguments, proposals, and suppositions only to land on the same ambiguities. This wasn’t an outcome of dubious certainty; in fact, it was a probability.

Further, there was the issue of interpreting comments to the Constitution. If a convention came to supply not a new draft Constitution but mere comments to the existing draft, those comments would be of questionable use. Comments “frequently obscure the text they were meant to elucidate, and render that ambiguous, which before was sufficiently plain and obvious.” Comments would further muddy the waters. Rather than burden the Constitution with comments that may make the meaning even more unclear, Stevens argued that when the people “feel the least inconvenience arising from” those ambiguities, the people will expunge them; and who could predict when that would happen, wrote Stevens, so the “full discovery of these inaccuracies must necessarily be left to time.” It would fall to future generations to feel the inconvenience from a portion of the Constitution being ambiguous and then to resolve that ambiguity however they would see fit. In this way, the Constitution was destined to be a “living” document, a document that generations would read through the lens of their time with their morals, their perspectives, their issues, and their experiences coloring their view of how to resolve the Constitution’s ambiguities.

Stevens grappled with another objection: the Governor argued—as many had—that the President should be ineligible for election after a given number of years. Stevens argued that Americans had a predisposition toward trying to curb power, trying to place a check on power wherever one could reasonably be placed, and this came from the time that Americans had been acquainted with the “extensive prerogatives and regal state, which the Supreme Executive in England have always possessed.” But this predisposition needed its own restraint as it related to limiting the number of times a President may hold office: “Why then should we tie up our own hands, and deprive ourselves of the services of a man, with whose conduct we are perfectly satisfied?” In other words, despite what happened with the monarch, if there was a President who was effectively executing his or her responsibilities, why make an unnecessary change of phasing out that President, particularly when more good could come from the administration? To some, like Governor Randolph, it would have been a cruel reckoning to see an American executive take control with no time limit on tenure given the abuses that he saw come from the English monarchy during his life. And, eventually, after experimenting with an unspoken tradition of two terms being the limit for President—and having that tradition broken—Americans would come to accept Governor Randolph’s approach and its reasoning and manifesting that by amending the Constitution to impose a two-term limit on Presidents.

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