At the Pennsylvania Convention, Robert Whitehill rose to speak about the proposed Constitution including—and perhaps especially—its biggest flaw. To Whitehill, despite the fact that the country’s learned people devised the Constitution, “the defect is in the system itself,—there lies the evil which. no argument can palliate, no sophistry can disguise.” The Constitution, as it was written, “must eventually annihilate the independent sovereignty of the several states” given the power that the Constitution allotted to the federal government.
The years after the Civil War, until 1877, were replete with novel uncertainties. The country had changed: the qualities that defined antebellum America had vanished; those who had been the most vocal before the war—soon-to-be Confederates—had seen their soapbox taken by the “Radical Republicans,” Republicans who sought to not only end slavery but to bring into effect equality amongst the races. Regardless of political party or geographic location, the country and its citizens had the task of reconstructing the United States, every one of them, and that task began before the Civil War’s end. President Abraham Lincoln spoke of his hope to reconcile the “disorganized and discordant elements” of the country, and he said: “I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable.”[i] Lincoln died four days later without fully setting forth his vision for how the nation may reconstruct itself, but events would soon render that vision—broad and ambiguous as it was—antiquated: soon after his death, the same federal government that had grown to enjoy extraordinary power (such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus) would go from having an authentic political genius, Lincoln, at its helm to having Andrew Johnson, a disagreeable at best (belligerent at worst) as executive; and not so long after Johnson took power, roving bands of the Ku Klux Klan acted in concert with state officials throughout the South to subjugate—by any means—those who had been freed.
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.”
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.
Americans’ trust in their government has always ebbed and flowed, and those ebbs and flows have largely depended on whether the government and its officers have acted in ways that earned the trust of its citizens or in ways that led the government to be mired in scandal—therefore sullying its reputation. Some of the largest ebbs in trust have come after officials in the top echelon of government—Senators, Representatives, Presidents and their cabinets—have used their offices for their own benefit. Two months before the election of 1872, news broke of a scandal that would extend well into 1873 and implicate politicians as prominent as the Vice President, and that scandal foreshadowed the ways in which big business and politics would intertwine in not only the Nineteenth Century but the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.
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.
At the heart of a healthy democracy is the power for people or their representatives to create, modify, or repeal the laws for those laws inevitably govern nearly all aspects of life. The New York Journal published an article that dissected fair representation in the proposed Constitution:
“The object of every free government is the public good, and all lesser interests yield to it. That of every tyrannical government, is the happiness and aggrandisement of one, or a few, and to this the public felicity, and every other interest must submit. Read more
Following are excerpts from an anonymous article published in the New York Journal:
“To the Citizens of the State of New-York.
In my last number I endeavored to prove that the language of the article relative to the establishment of the executive of this new government was vague and inexplicit, that the great powers of the President Read more
The Deep South’s animating of a Second American Revolution, by seceding from the Union and laying the foundation for an operational Confederate government, forced the North to either suppress the South’s uprising or craft a resolution. The likelihood of war would deter any widespread northern suppression, leaving the question: What compromise could the North propose that appeased the South and put both sections of the country on a path of coexistence? While variations of this question had been posed in the years leading up to 1860, at no prior point were states seceding from the Union en masse to form a rival government. Read more
In the wake of the disconcerting result of the Election of 1860, the nature of southern secessionism suggested the imminent secession of at least some southern states from the Union. The timing and execution of states actually seceding from the Union was unclear, but the Deep South was prepared to act first. Read more