Constitution Sunday: “Centinel” [Samuel Bryan] XII

Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia)

January 23, 1788

When a group of people conspire, their interests are aligned to work toward a result and bring about that result. The reasons for participating in a conspiracy may be varied, but often, enriching oneself—either with money, influence, or power—is at the heart of it. Conspiracies are usually simple in design as enriching oneself need not be overly complicated. But, it is the allegation of grander conspiracies that often capture the public’s attention and imagination. Sometimes, this is because those grander conspiracies can explain the world’s events—which are often overwhelming and complex—in a clear, definite way. These conspiracies aren’t the type for which believers require detailed evidence; adherents would say that these conspiracies involve too many people with power and money to leave a trail of evidentiary breadcrumbs back to the wrongdoers. In their view, the most damning evidence simply cannot exist. Nonetheless, believers will find what they can, however weak or speculative or trivial it may be, and have no choice but to rely on it because otherwise the allegation of conspiracy collapses in on itself. And there is motivation to do this: it may be easier to maintain that facade of a conspiracy by adding to it weak evidence than to confront the complex realities of the world. It was within this context, at the beginning of 1788, that Samuel Bryan published an article in Philadelphia that, in his view, finally called out the framers of the Constitution, the Federalists, for the conspirators that they were.

That group of conspirators had designed a system of government—encapsulated in the Constitution—and now sought to implement that system. To Bryan, this was a “system which was pompously displayed as the perfection of government” but was, in fact, “the most odious system of tyranny that was ever projected, a many headed hydra of despotism, whose complicated and various evils would be infinitely more oppressive and afflictive than the scourge of any single tyrant . . . .” It was a system that would be the envy of rival despots, and it was “an attempt against the public liberties . . . unprecedented in history, it is a crime of the blackest dye, as it strikes at the happiness of millions and the dignity of human nature, as it was intended to deprive the inhabitants of so large a portion of the globe of the choicest blessing of life and the oppressed of all nations of an asylum.”

And fearing their fate, the conspirators sought to hide behind the hero of the time, George Washington, claiming that “his concurrence in the proposed system of government” was “evidence of the purity of their intentions.” Nonsense, wrote Bryan: this attempt to protect themselves would “be considered as an aggravation of their treason, and an insult on the good sense of the people, who have too much discernment not to make a just discrimination between the honest mistaken zeal of the patriot, and the flagitious machinations of an ambitious junto . . . .” Bryan saw himself as one who expressed what many others felt but could not say, and he believed that he harbored “the purest patriotism” in doing so. He believed that those men, those conspirators, lacked the patriotism to do what was right by the people and that it fell to patriots like him to reveal the truth.

To understand the gravity of the situation, the conduct of the conspirators was all anyone needed to see, according to Bryan: they had prevented information from coming to light about their debates of the Constitution, they had sought to influence as many newspapers as possible into convincing the people that there was a widespread confidence in this Constitution, and they sold a dream to the people that the Constitution “would prove a mine of wealth and prosperity equal to every want, or the most sanguine desire; that it would effect what can only be produced by the exertion of industry and the practice of economy.” Then, rather than permit time to the public for analyzing the proposed system and debate its merits (knowing “that allowing time for a rational investigation would prove fatal to their designs”), the conspirators sought to foster “blind enthusiasm” and push toward approval as soon as possible. In Bryan’s view, anyone who “ventured to attack” the Constitution, at a time “when it was deemed sacred by most men and the certain ruin of any who should dare to lisp a word against it,” was acting as a “true patriot.”

All of Bryan’s complaints about the Constitution and its framers are about the procedure, not the substance, of the document. Rather than explain why the Constitution would cause tyranny, he simply attacked the framers’ eagerness to implement it. But more than that, Bryan committed common errors in reasoning which many others commit when alleging conspiracies: rather than articulate how the conspiracy operated and explain how it has harmed people, Bryan used hyperbole and powerful, but unfounded, accusations to question the authority that the framers had and their ultimate aims. Perhaps Bryan was not in a position to know what form of government the country needed, but perhaps Bryan should not have chosen such inflammatory language in putting forth his case against the Constitution. For instance, there were many substantive flaws with the Constitution, but someone reading Bryan’s article wouldn’t have known those flaws; that reader simply could’ve read the article, found Bryan to be a compelling writer through his dogmatic approach, and then questioned the patriotism of the framers with the belief that true patriotism means doing nothing more than finding procedure suspicious and the Constitution problematic—but not identifying any clear reason against adopting it or choosing an alternative.

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