In the course of human history, there have been innumerable types of governments—all of which serve as examples for those seeking to devise their own system of government. When the Constitutional Convention gathered, there was consensus that the Articles of Confederation would no longer suffice, but it remained unclear what direction the convention should go when drafting its Constitution. James Madison, writing under the name Publius, detailed the monumental task that the convention assigned itself.
In celebrating America’s first centennial, on July 4, 1876, one must have recalled the tumult of that century: a war to secure independence, a second war to defend newly-obtained independence, and then a civil war the consequences of which the country was still grappling with eleven years after its end. But there also had been extraordinary success in that century, albeit not without cost; by the 100-year mark, the country had shown itself and the world that its Constitution—that centerpiece of democracy—was holding strong (with 18 Presidents, 44 Congresses, and 43 Supreme Court justices already having served their government by that time), and the country had expanded several times over in geographic size, putting it in command of a wealth of resources as its cities, industries, and agriculture prospered. Several months after the centennial celebration was the next presidential election, and during the life of the country, while most elections had gone smoothly, some had not—the elections of 1800 and 1824 were resolved by the House of Representatives choosing the victor as no candidate secured a majority of Electoral College votes and the election of 1860 was soon followed by the secession of Southern states. And yet, even with those anomalous elections in view, the upcoming election of 1876 was to become one unlike any other in American history.
The original sin in America’s Constitution was how it addressed—or failed to address—the issue of slavery. There was always going to be a question of how the country would transition away from slavery as the rest of the Western world was beginning to do by restricting importation and proceeding to impose limitations on trade. An article authored by “Mark Antony” responding to one authored by “Brutus” laid out, in 1788, a vision for how the country could deal with slavery—but unaware of how long it would take for slavery to be abolished and how much would be lost in finally achieving abolition.
In the draft of the Constitution was a clause that permitted the federal government to “borrow money on the credit of the United States, and to raise and support armies.” The author of an article in the New York Journal, using the pseudonym Brutus (undoubtedly referring to one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus), warned of the consequences flowing from that clause. Not only did it leave open the possibility of the national debt growing so large as to exceed the country’s ability to repay, it allowed an “indefinite and unlimited” power to raise armies regardless of whether the country was at war.
When drafting any written constitution or even any law, there is a question of whether every right should be explicitly laid out in the document. Where there are express rights in a constitution—such as the right to freedom of speech—a reader (including judges) may conclude that the list of rights are exhaustive and that there are no rights but those mentioned in that constitution. A reader could also reason that those rights which are expressed in the constitution are not a complete list but only the most important rights and may, in fact, include other rights. Additionally, a constitution may have express prohibitions such as the United States Constitution at Article I, Section 9: “The privilege of the writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended.” Questions of interpretation, such as these, led to debates between friends in the winter of 1787 and 1788, and a letter from Thomas B. Wait to George Thatcher illustrated those debates.
Throughout the history of the United States, there have been numerous instances where its citizens questioned whether the Constitution and its amendments were sufficiently protecting the liberties of the people. Those questions have led to substantial change—such as the amendments to the Constitution and laws that furthered the Constitution’s objectives, like the Civil Rights Acts—and yet, the American people’s perspective on the Constitution and the liberty it affords has often been one of disenchantment.
Impeachment of a president has become a feature within the Constitution that is colored by its uses throughout history: the impeachments of Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump and the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon. While none of the impeachment proceedings resulted in conviction—and thus removal—of a president, those proceedings illustrated how Congress would deliberate over the solemn task that the Constitution assigned it. At the time the Constitution was facing ratification, it remained unclear how Congress would actually remove a president, and one author, writing under the name Luther Martin, opined in the Maryland Gazette that Congress would never remove a president—and thus far, Martin has been correct.
Every form of government known to human history has been presented—on occasion—with the possibility of revolution or, perhaps euphemistically, a drastic reform of that government’s structure. While the causes may vary for a revolution or reform, the discontent that precedes it is universal: massive parts of the citizenry feel disillusioned with the government’s ability or will to act in the citizens’ best interest. It is at that point that the defects in the government are most evident, and it is at that point that citizens decide whether those defects can and should be corrected or whether fundamental change is necessary. Read more
A Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society Addresses the Pennsylvania Minority
Carlisle Gazette, (Pennsylvania), January 2, 1788
One of the most frequent dooming political predictions that Americans—of any political persuasion—tend to make is that the end of the Republic, and therefore the end of liberty, has come. This prediction even goes back to the debate of the Constitution in 1788, which a minority in the State Convention of Pennsylvania opposed. The prediction persists because the circumstances under which a republic ends are amorphous as the Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society’s makes clear in its address supporting the minority at the State Convention:
“The history of mankind is pregnant with frequent, bloody, and almost imperceptible transitions from freedom to slavery. Rome, after she had been long distracted by the fury of the patrician and plebeian parties, at length found herself reduced to the most abject slavery under a Nero, a Caligula, &c. The successive convulsions, which happened at Rome, were the immediate consequence of the aspiring ambition of a few great men, and the very organization and construction of the government itself.”
“Publius,” The Federalist XXII [Alexander Hamilton]
New-York Packet, December 14, 1787
A well-functioning democracy must be capable of recognizing and dealing with the friction that occurs between the minority and the majority on any given issue. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, in the Federalist XXII, the difference between a vote requiring a simple majority versus a vote requiring a two-thirds majority is one that—the latter—empowers a small, vocal minority to obtain significant power over two-thirds of the body. Furthermore, it enables foreign powers—who may be seeking to “perplex our councils and embarrass our exertions”—to sway the policymaking of our country by using that method to encourage factions to block legislation that may be harmful to that foreign power but beneficial to us. Read more