Constitution Sunday: Thomas B. Wait to George Thatcher

Portland, Maine, January 8, 1788

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.

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Constitution Sunday: Answers to Mason’s “Objections”: “Marcus” [James Iredell] IV

Answers to Mason’s “Objections”: “Marcus” [James Iredell] IV

Norfolk and Portsmouth Journal (Virginia), March 12, 1788

Following are excerpts from James Iredell’s responses to George Mason’s “Objections” to the Constitution:

VIIIth. Objection. ‘Under their own construction of the general clause at the end of the enumerated powers, the Congress may grant monopolies in trade and commerce, constitute new crimes, inflict unusual and severe punishments, and extend their power as far as they shall think proper Read more

Constitution Sunday: Refutation of the “Federal Farmer”: Timothy Pickering to Charles Tillinghast

Refutation of the “Federal Farmer”: Timothy Pickering to Charles Tillinghast

Philadelphia, December 24, 1787

Following are excerpts from Timothy Pickering’s letter to Charles Tillinghast, refuting the “Federal Farmer”:

“In respect to the organization of the general government, the federal farmer, as well as other opposers, object to Read more

Divided Sovereignty

Signing of the Constitution. By: Louis S. Glanzman.

John Adams had strong opinions about federalism. He believed that the government should be structured similarly to the British Empire, given the British Empire’s extraordinary success.

At the time of the signing of the Constitution, Adams firmly believed that the Constitution had secured a national government, as opposed to a government dividing its sovereignty into states and a federal government. Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 191. Read more

The Ohio System

Lithographic Print of Cincinnati, Ohio. 1800. By: Stobridge Lithographing Co.

Ohio was admitted into the Union in 1803, and it introduced a new political system to the United States. Each county in Ohio had county commissions that each county’s citizens elected, rather than the states of the South and Southwest, who had self-perpetuating commissions. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 365.

Further, each county commission had overlapping jurisdiction with “towns, school districts, and other subdivisions,” which produced a variety of offices for election. Id. Local citizens were responsible for electing its local representatives to these towns, school districts, and county commissions, as well as fulfilling their obligations for electing representatives to the Ohio State Senate and House of Representatives and of course the federal Senate and House of Representatives.

Gordon Wood notes in Empire of Liberty that so many political offices open created a widespread, competitive political atmosphere, with dozens and dozens of candidates running for the various offices then open for politicians in Ohio. For example, 116 men ran for “Hamilton County’s [the County including Cincinnati] seven seats in Ohio’s third territorial assembly.” Id. In 1803, 22 candidates ran to be Ohio’s first governor. Id.

Meanwhile, because of Ohio’s diverse economy, “with a variety of markets and no simple distribution for the region’s many products,” small towns began popping up all over Ohio. Id.

These early years in Ohio inevitably created a sense of participation in politics on all levels for Ohioans. As is familiar for modern Americans, early Ohioans, beginning in 1803, would participate in their local politics, state politics, and federal politics. Unlike other states in the Union in the South and Southwest of the country then, Ohioans would have an active role in electing their local governments and having a say in how local affairs were conducted.

The fact that so many Americans had no ability to be involved in their local elections prior to this Ohioan system being adopted deserves more analysis. The uniquely American obsession with having democratic principles from top to bottom and from small to large has spread throughout the United States by now, but in those early years, it is clear that the extent of democratic rights were, for some, perhaps just limited to state elections and federal elections.

Americans now enjoy the full benefits of democracy on the local level, the state level, and the federal level. Some in the early years of the Republic may have questioned the capability of the citizenry to be informed enough to elect their local politicians. But there is no question that the election of local politicians, whether they be in school districts, county commissions, or towns, is a fundamental responsibility that is valued by Americans who choose to inform themselves and exercise their right to vote.