Constitution Sunday: James Wilson’s Opening Address

Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention. November 20 through December 15, 1787. James Wilson’s Opening Address.

November 24, 1787

At the convention in Pennsylvania called for ratifying the draft Constitution, one of the foremost students of history and articulate Americans of his time, James Wilson, delivered the opening address. Just as every great storyteller knows to do, he provided the context for the moment: whereas most governments are created as “the result of force, fraud, or accident,” America “now presents the first instance of a people assembled to weigh deliberately and calmly, and to decide leisurely and peacably, upon the form of government by which they will bind themselves and their posterity.” Past governments, whether that of the Swiss Cantons, the United Kingdom’s monarchy, the United Netherlands, or the ancients—the Achaean and Lycian leagues, the Greeks, the Romans—provided examples for the three forms of government: “Monarchical, Aristocratical, and Democratical.”

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Jackson’s Early Economic Success

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President Andrew Jackson. Circa 1830-32. By: Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl.

President Andrew Jackson had good fortune as his presidency began with a wave of prosperity. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 360.

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Unanticipated Consequences

Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury from 1804-1815.

In 1807, Congress passed the Embargo Act at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. The Embargo Act “prohibited the departure of all American ships in international trade.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 649. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin doubted the effectiveness of the embargo on preventing the oncoming confrontation with the battling European behemoths of France and England. Id. at 650. Gallatin predicted that the embargo could result in “privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, [and] politics at home . . . .” Id.

Gallatin advocated for war, rather than the embargo. Id. at 651. He realized one of the greatest truths of government: “momentous actions by governments often had unanticipated consequences.” Id. In support of that point, he told President Jefferson that “governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves.” Id. quoting Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson, 18 Dec. 1807, in Henry Adams, ed., The Writings of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia, 1879), 1: 368.

Gallatin’s prescient words were wise at the time, as the embargo precipitated the War of 1812. However, his words also ring true throughout history. There are numerous examples throughout American history where momentous decisions led America down a path of unexpected, and often avoidable, consequences. Some may look to the 20th Century and 21st Century’s Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

There have been even more recent exemplifications of this principle. Most recently, Western Europe and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. It was a momentous decision with unanticipated consequences: the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine.

Leaders, American and otherwise, should heed the words of Gallatin. Momentous decisions are inevitable, and not all consequences are knowable, but where consequences are predictable, leaders should be aware of the potential for mitigating the negative effects of those momentous decisions.

The Greatest Political Phenomenon

Depiction of Joel Barlow.

On July 4, 1809, Joel Barlow, a diplomat and poet, gave a public speech about other Americans’ feelings about the country. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 469. It was his conclusion that America had moved past its infancy and was approaching adolescence and manhood. Id. Barlow concluded that “[t]here has been no nation either ancient or modern that could have presented human nature in the same character as ours does and will present it; because there has existed no nation whose government has resembled ours . . . a representative democracy on a large scale, with a fixed constitution.” Id. quoting Joel Barlow, Oration, Delivered at Washington, July Fourth, 1809; at the Request of the Democratic Citizens of the District of Columbia (Washington, DC, 1809), 3-6, 9.

Barlow also concluded that America was “the greatest political phenomenon, and probably will be considered as the greatest advancement in the science of government that all modern ages have produced.” Id.

Barlow’s words still ring true, after over two centuries of progress in America. This has been evidenced by many countries throughout the world modeling their governments after America, to varying success. While some may argue that other modern countries, especially India, have adopted a democratic system and have a fixed constitution, there is no question that the United States remains unique. Taking India as a modern example of a democracy, the comparison to America is striking. While there is an identifiable, significant middle-class in the United States, India has a yawning gap between the wealthiest and poorest. The “human nature in the same character as ours” that Barlow describes simply has not been surpassed since his bold pronouncement of those words.

There is a question as to whether the United States is the “greatest political phenomenon” that Barlow proclaims. While many countries have adopted systems similar to America, which seems to flatter the American system, the success of those countries has been apparently hindered by various external factors. Take, for example, Russia. Russia has adopted a democratic model of government in name, but rampant corruption and oligarchic tendencies have precluded Russia from ever rivaling the United States as a model of effective, transparent government.

Even looking to Europe, and its many effective states, no country in Europe has the population and acreage to be comparable to the United States. Taking Europe as a whole, economically it is similar to the United States, but obviously governmentally, each European nation has its own operational government. This precludes any effective comparison with Europe or its individual nations.

The sheer extent of the United States, combined with its prolonged success, seems to bring wisdom to Barlow’s prescient words. Whether Barlow predicted the success of America merely by luck or not, his words underlie those famous words of Abraham Lincoln: that the United States is the last best hope of Earth.