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Would We the People Ratify the Constitution Today? April 18, 2014

Posted by Dr. Robert Owens in Politics, Politiocal Philosophy.
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We the People are the opening words of the preamble to the Constitution.  Many patriots glory in that name, “We the People” holding it aloft as a banner against the encroachments of an ever expanding central government.   In the minds of many it is connected somehow to Lincoln’s famous description of America’s government, “Of the People, by the people and for the people.”

Both of these were revolutionary terms when first spoken.

The people of the founding generation did not think of themselves as “Americans,” instead they saw themselves as citizens of their respective States.  The thirteen colonies, with the singular exception of North and South Carolina, were each founded as separate entities.  Each had its own history and relationship with the crown.  They banded together for the Revolution during which they established the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.  This established a confederation composed of thirteen independent States.

When the secretly drafted Constitution was finally revealed to the public many of the leading lights of the Revolution were enraged by what they saw as a counter-revolution seeking to supplant the legally constituted Confederation of States in favor of a consolidated central government.   Some of them say the truth was revealed in the first three words, “We the People.”

Every school child can recite the most famous words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  You probably said those words in your head before you read them once you saw his name.  He is synonymous with America’s defiance to tyranny.  While these famous words ring in the heads of all, few know his opinion on the Constitution.

At the Virginia Ratification Convention in 1788, Patrick Henry said,

And here I would make this inquiry of those worthy characters who composed a part of the late federal Convention. I am sure they were fully impressed with the necessity of forming a great consolidated government, instead of a confederation. That this is a consolidated government is demonstrably clear; and the danger of such a government is, to my mind, very striking. I have the highest veneration for those gentlemen; but, sir, give me leave to demand, What right had they to say, We, the people? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great, consolidated, national government, of the people of all the states.

Ever since the Civil War fatally warped the original federal structure and We the People became a reality the central government of the United States has assumed more and more power until today totalitarianism appears to be within its grasp.  I am not referring to the crude overt totalitarianism of a Nazi Germany or a Soviet Russia instead I am referring to a soft totalitarianism, a kind of nanny state smothering of individual freedom, personal liberty and economic opportunity.  After the complete subjugation of the States to the central government by the Lincoln administration combined with the increased mobility of the modern era, we the people actually became the way most people think of themselves.

In America today we have a president who in a 2001 interview expressed his inner most thoughts about the Constitution,

If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court. I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I’d be o.k. But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf, and that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was, um, because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.

That is as clear a statement of the way our Progressive leaders view America’s founding document, a charter of negative liberties.  A charter that they believe needs to be expanded with a second bill of rights first proposed by FDR in his 1944 State of the Union Address,

  1. A realistic tax law—which will tax all unreasonable profits, both individual and corporate, and reduce the ultimate cost of the war to our sons and daughters. The tax bill now under consideration by the Congress does not begin to meet this test.
  2. A continuation of the law for the renegotiation of war contracts—which will prevent exorbitant profits and assure fair prices to the Government. For two long years I have pleaded with the Congress to take undue profits out of war.
  3. A cost of food law—which will enable the Government (a) to place a reasonable floor under the prices the farmer may expect for his production; and (b) to place a ceiling on the prices a consumer will have to pay for the food he buys. This should apply to necessities only; and will require public funds to carry out. It will cost in appropriations about one percent of the present annual cost of the war.
  4. Early reenactment of the stabilization statute of October, 1942. This expires June 30, 1944, and if it is not extended well in advance, the country might just as well expect price chaos by summer. We cannot have stabilization by wishful thinking. We must take positive action to maintain the integrity of the American dollar.
  5. A national service law—which, for the duration of the war, will prevent strikes, and, with certain appropriate exceptions, will make available for war production or for any other essential services every able-bodied adult in this Nation.

According to Cass R. Sunstein, the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, President Obama not only believes in FDR’s Second Bill of Rights he seeks to implement them,

As the actions of his first term made clear, and as his second inaugural address declared, President Barack Obama is committed to a distinctive vision of American government. It emphasizes the importance of free enterprise, and firmly rejects “equality of result,” but it is simultaneously committed to ensuring both fair opportunity and decent security for all.

In these respects, Obama is updating Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights.

We are in the grip of the Federalists on steroids bent on redistributing their way to total power.  The question before us today is, “Would we the people ratify the Constitution today?”

Even Conservatives believe in a safety net.  Everyone contributes to and hopes to receive from Social Security.  No one wants people dying in the streets because they can’t get medical care so Medicaid is available to the uninsured.  Of course Medicare is considered a right for anyone over 65.  Unemployment is an accepted part of the safety net as are food stamps.  If you add up what is already accepted and expected then throw Obamacare into the mix and you see we have become a society addicted to entitlements all of which would fail the test of a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

The 10th Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  The power to do any of these entitlements is not delegated anywhere in the document as it is written, only as it is interpreted.

So would we the people ratify the Constitution as it is written today?  I think not.  A living document has turned the Constitution into a dead letter and the entitlements we have all accepted have turned the descendants of the Founders, Framers, and Pioneers into supplicants standing before the federal throne waiting for a check.

Only a re-birth of self-reliance, a renaissance of historical perspective and renewed political activity have a chance to bring about a rebirth of liberty in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Keep the faith.  Keep the peace.  We shall overcome.

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2014 Contact Dr. Owens drrobertowens@hotmail.com Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens

 

The Ratification Debate Part Three July 17, 2011

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Concluding my three part series in celebration of our nation’s 235th Birthday, we will look at arguments advanced by both sides.  Last week we ended with the question, who were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists and why does it matter to us today?  This week we will learn the answers to the questions.  Who was debating?  What did they have to say?  Who won?  And, why does it matter to us today?

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers are a collection of eighty five essays published in New York newspapers.  They outline how the government, as proposed in the Constitution, would operate and why this highly centralized type of government was the best for the United States of America. All of the essays were signed by “PUBLIUS.” To this day there is some dispute as to who authored some of the articles.  However, after much study the consensus is generally believed that Alexander Hamilton wrote fifty two, James Madison wrote twenty eight, and John Jay wrote five.

Just as in every state, the debate over the ratification of the Constitution was intensely followed by the public in New York. Immediately after the conclusion of the Convention, the Constitution came under intense criticism in many New York newspapers. Echoing the sentiments of several of the prominent men who had been delegates to the Convention some contributors to the newspapers said the Constitution diluted the rights Americans had fought for and won in the recent Revolutionary War.

As one of the leading designers and loudest proponents of the Constitution Alexander Hamilton worried that the document might fail to be ratified in his home state of New York.   Therefore, Hamilton, a well trained and well spoken lawyer, decided to write a series of essays refuting the critics and pointing out how the new Constitution would in fact benefit Americans.  In the Convention Hamilton had been the only New York delegate to sign the Constitution after the other New Yorkers walked out of the Convention, because they felt the document being crafted was injurious to the rights of the people.

Hamilton was in favor of a strong central government having proposed to the Convention a president elected for life that had the power to appoint state governors. Although these autocratic ideas were thankfully left out of the finished document Hamilton knew that the Constitution, as written, was much closer to the kind of government he wanted than the one which then existed under the Articles of Confederation..

Hamilton’s first essay was published October 27, 1787 in the New York Independent Journal signed by “Publius.” At that time the use of pen names was a common practice. Hamilton then recruited James Madison and John Jay to contribute essays that also used the pen name “Publius.”

James Madison, as a delegate from Virginia, took an active role participating as one of the main actors in the debates during the Convention.  In addition he also kept the most detailed set of notes and personally drafted much of the Constitution.

John Jay of New York had not attended the Convention.  He was a well known judge and diplomat.  He was in fact a member of the government under the Articles currently serving as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

“Publius” wrote All eighty five essays that were written and published between October 1787 and August 1788, in newspapers of the state of New York.  But their popularity, readership, and impact were not limited to New York. They were in such great demand that they were soon published in a two volume set.

The Federalist essays, also known as the Federalist Papers, have served two distinct purposes in American history.  Primarily the essays helped persuade the delegates to the New York Ratification Convention to vote for the Constitution.  In later years, The Federalist Papers have helped scholars and other interested people understand what the writers and original supporters of the Constitution sought to establish when they initially drafted and campaigned for ratification.

Knowing that the Federalist Papers were written by such luminaries as Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury; James Madison, the fourth President of the United States; and John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the question asked is, who were these Anti-Federalists who dared speak against the founding of the greatest nation that has ever existed:  Some fringe people who didn’t want the blessing of truth, justice, and the American way?!

The Anti-Federalist Papers

The list of Anti-Federalist leaders included: George Mason, Edmund Randolph, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and even though he was not in the country at the time, Thomas Jefferson.

There is one major difference between the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers: the former are compact and relatively unified the latter are not really a single series of articles written by a united group with a single purpose as the Federalist Papers were. Instead there were many different authors and they were published all over the country in pamphlets and flyers as well as in newspapers.  Among the many the most important are: John DeWitt- Essays I-III, The Federal Farmer- Letters I and II, Brutus Essays I-XVI, Cato, Letters V and VII.

The first of the Anti-federalist essays was published on October 5, 1787 in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer.  This was followed by many more published throughout the country which charged that any new government formed under the auspices of the Constitution would:

  • Be injurious to the people because it lacked of a bill of rights.
  • Discriminate against the South with regard to navigation legislation.
  • Give the central government the power to levy direct taxation.
  • Lead to the loss of state sovereignty.
  • Represent aristocratic politicians bent on promoting the interests of their own class

The Federalists had the momentum from the beginning.  They were wise enough to appropriate the name Federalist, since federalism was a popular and well understood concept among the general public even though their position was the opposite of what the name implied.  They also had the support of most of the major newspapers and a majority of the leading men of wealth if not of all the original revolutionary patriots.  They also used a tactic of trying to rush the process as much as possible calling for conventions and votes with all dispatch.  And in the end these tactics combined with the great persuasion of the Federalist Letters and the prestige of General Washington carried the day. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788.

Although the anti-Federalists lost their struggle against the ratification of the Constitution their spirited defense of individual rights, personal liberty, and their deep-rooted suspicion of a central governmental power became and remain at the core American political values.  Their insistence upon the absolute necessity of the promise of enumerated rights as a prerequisite for ratification established the Bill of Rights as the lasting memorial to their work.

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College.  He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens drrobertowens@hotmail.com  Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.

 

The Ratification Debate Part Two July 8, 2011

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Picking up where I left off in my review of the ratification debate I want to address the question I raised at the end of last week’s essay,What was the problem?”

If the government as established under the Articles had so many successes how did it end up being replaced by the government as established under the Constitution?

There were some perceived and actual weaknesses of the government as established under the Articles of Confederation:

  • The national government was too weak as compared to the State governments.
  • There was only a unicameral legislature and thus there was not a separate executive department to carry out and enforce the acts of Congress.
  •  There was no national court system to interpret the meaning of the laws passed by Congress leaving them open to differing interpretations.
  • .Congress didn’t have the power to levy taxes. It was instead dependent on State donations, which were levied on the basis of the value of land within the various states.
  • Congress did not have the exclusive right to coin money. Each state retained the right to coin money.  Without a uniform monetary system the coins of one state might not be accepted in another, hampering commerce.
  • There was no mechanism to adjudicate disputes between the states.
  • The Individual States were not precluded from having their own foreign policies including the right to make treaties.
  • Each State had one vote in Congress with no respect to size or population.
  • It required nine out of the thirteen states to approve the passage of major laws, approve treaties, or declare war.
  • The amendment process was cumbersome requiring a unanimous vote.

Some of these weaknesses caused actual problems during the Articles short tenure, and some were merely perceived as possible sources of problems in the future.

So how did we get from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution?

It was commerce that proved to be the catalyst for the transition between the Articles and the Constitution.

Disputes concerning navigation on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia led the calling of a conference between five states at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786.  Alexander Hamilton was one of the delegates.  He successfully convinced the delegates that these issues of commerce were too intertwined with primarily economic and political concerns to be properly addressed by representatives of only five states.  Instead he proposed that all of the states send representatives to a Federal Convention the following year in Philadelphia.  At first Congress was opposed to this plan However, when they learned that Virginia would send George Washington they approved of the meeting.  Elections of delegates were subsequently held in all of the States except Rhode Island which ignored the summons.

The Convention had been authorized by Congress merely to draft proposals for amendments to the Articles of Confederation.  However, as soon as it convened they decided on their own to throw the Articles aside and instead create a completely new form of government.

Was the writing of the Constitution legal?  Who gave the Federal Convention authority to discard the Articles of Confederation which had been duly ratified by all thirteen States?  Was this a counterrevolution?

The answers to these questions have been debated by historians and constitutional scholars for hundreds of years, but in reality the answers are moot.  Whether the Federal Convention had any legal sanction to do what they did doesn’t matter. The action was eventually accepted by the Congress, the ratification conventions were held in the various States, and eventually it was ratified becoming the supreme law of the land.

Now we are ready to look at the Great Debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

First, what about the terms, “Federalist” and “Anti-Federalist” how appropriate were they during the debate?

New Speak is nothing new in politics, and the concept of words having power to shape reality was not invented by George Orwell.  Look at the original debate of the ratification of the Constitution, and as a consequence how we have studied, learned, and even shaped the debate in this lecture concerning the ratification of the Constitution.

Think about the central term itself. Federalism refers to decentralized government. Those who supported the Constitution, who advocated that it replace the Articles of Confederation, which if nothing else established a decentralized system of government, called themselves “Federalists,” even though they wanted a more centralized government.  This left the supporters of the Articles, who wanted a decentralized government, to be known then and forever as the “Anti-Federalists,” when in fact they were the true Federalists.

So much for the straight forward clarity of Historical fact, everything must be examined and everything interpreted.

In the study of the debate for the ratification of the Constitution a common mistake made is the shallowness of the study.  In a good school the average student will be exposed to perhaps two of the Federalist Letters and none of the Anti-Federalist Letters, which is like trying to understand an answer without knowing what the question was.  In this abbreviated look at the subject we will look at both sides in general seeking instead an overview of the topic leaving the specifics to a personal study, which will without a doubt enrich the understanding of any who find the motivation for such an endeavor.

The Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers were actually published as newspaper articles for the general public.  This in itself tells us much about the comparative state of public education and awareness between the American general public in the late Eighteenth Century and the early Twenty-first.  When we examine the two sets of papers and dwell upon the vocabulary and the breadth and depth of the philosophical, political, and economical ideas expressed we are immediately struck by the fact that the average person in America today would not be able to understand the sophisticated and specialized vocabulary let alone grasp the ideas.  And yet these were not published in journals for the educated elite. These were published in general circulation newspapers and were actually debated and referenced across the dinner tables and around the workshops of America.

Next week we will look deeper into these two sets of documents that have had such a profound effect upon America and find out exactly who the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were and why does it matter to us today?

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College.  He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens drrobertowens@hotmail.com  Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.

The Ratification Debate: Part One July 1, 2011

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While it is not my usual routine to write articles in a series, in honor of our nation’s 235th birthday I want to take some time to examine the process that led to the ratification of the Constitution.  Therefore, each of the next three weeks I will post one installment of a short refection on the ratification debate.

Context:

To understand the debate over the ratification of the Constitution it is necessary to first establish the context, for the study of a text without a context is a pretext.

Was the Constitution the first document produced to form the United States of America?  Does it mark the beginning of our nation and its government?

No, before there was a Constitution there was a United States of America.  This nation was not formed under the auspices of the Constitution the Constitution was formed under the Auspices of the United States.

Years before there was a Constitution there were the Articles of Confederation and it was at the final ratification of this document that the United States of America officially was born.  This often over-looked and much maligned document was drafted in 1777 by the same Continental Congress that passed and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence.  The Articles acknowledged the inherent sovereignty of the constituent States while at the same time establishing a league of friendship and perpetual union.

The Articles of Confederation:

The Articles of Confederation were written, debated and ratified during the Revolutionary War when the States were fighting for their lives against the overbearing Imperial government intent upon reducing all of them to mere appendages of the London based bureaucracy.  In consequence, they reflect the lack of confidence felt in any highly centralized state power.  The States were jealous of their ability to control their internal affairs.  These privileges had been won in various ways in the different States but in each of them they had gained the authority of custom and Tradition.  And in every State they were held dear and looked upon as necessary for a free and prosperous nation.  Therefore the Articles while creating a central government that could address such issues as war and peace most of the actual power was reserved to the individual States.

The maintenance of the sovereignty, freedom and independence of the individual States was facilitated by the fact that under the Articles there was no Executive or Judicial branches in the central government only a legislature and that consisted of only one house.  This one house Congress was composed of committees of delegates appointed by the States.  Congress was charged with the responsibility to prosecute the Revolution, declare war, maintain the Army and Navy, establish relations with other government, send and receive ambassadors and other functions such as establish policies for any territories acquired that were not under State control.

In the depths of war the Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. The Articles actually became the official and original organic document establishing the government of the United States of America on March 1, 1781 when Maryland, the last of the thirteen states ratified the document.

Today we reap the fruits of the reality that winners write history.  For two hundred plus years we have all been taught that the Articles of Confederation were an abject failure.  We are lectured on the fact that they did not have the power to create or sustain a viable nation.  It is common knowledge that if they would have continued in force there would have been wars between the states and a dysfunctional economy.

Yes, this is what we are taught.  This is what every school child for ten generations has learned as the bedrock of civics and the study of American politics and History.  But does the accepted History fit the facts?

What were some of the accomplishments of the Articles of Confederation?

  • The government of the United States was established under the Articles not the Constitution.
  • The government as established under the Articles successfully fought and won the Revolutionary War
  • The government as established under the Articles concluded the peace which gained not only the independence of the thirteen original colonies but all the land east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada.
  • The government as established under the Articles established diplomatic relations with the rest of the world and worked successfully to get the new United States of America recognized as an independent nation.
  • The government as established under the Articles negotiated our first treaty with a foreign power (France).
  • The government as established under the Articles led all the States to renounce their claims to the western lands.
  • The government as established under the Articles passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 which provided for the survey and sale of the western lands surrendered by the original thirteen states. These sales provided income for the new nation without taxation
  •  The government as established under the Articles through the set aside of land established federal support for a public education system.
  • The government as established under the Articles passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which provided the process through which every subsequent State after the original thirteen became States, with full equality with the original States.
  • The government as established under the Articles outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory.
  • The government as established under the Articles passed a bill of rights that protected the settlers of territories from abuses of power.

This is a very long list of positive accomplishments for a government that is portrayed as an abject failure.  This brings us to the question, “What was the problem?” a question I will address next week.

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College.  He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens dr.owens@comcast.net  Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.

 

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