The Happy Accident — The Constitution of the USA

Wealthy white merchants and farmers make a new government.

The Constitution of the United States of America is a true hodgepodge of compromise. It was indeed intended as a more centralizing mechanism than the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton was truly a driving force behind the action. However, while it may be argued the Constitutional Convention exceeded its mandate, my reading of history is that there were desperate problems which needed to be addressed. Perhaps they could have been handled with a mere revision of the Articles, however, those on the ground at the time thought differently. Apparently so did a majority of folks in the States.

There was also the very good possibility had the USA not assumed a Federalist form of government (which by all accounts was an accidental result), England would have prevailed against the individual States and in time have taken back the colonies into a presumably better Commonwealth. (Which is indulging in counterfactual history to the max, but one truly never knows how things would have occurred otherwise.)

It was not so much taking advantage of a crisis (echoes of today), as of a series of trade-offs, for good or ill, which were meant to deal with a real problem at the time. That it created such a document as the Constitution of the United States is possibly miraculous, and certainly shows (to me) the hand of God. (Not the hand of the devil, as some believe.)

The Federalist Papers, so beloved of those seeking “original intent” were in reality but one partisan salvo in the war of words over the ratification in New York State. They were not meant to be learned, objective analysis of the new Constitution, but propaganda geared to make them sound good to those people who were yet dubious. Madison’s diaries show that original intent far better.

For a counterbalance, the writings of the Anti-federalists (which have been out in several paperback editions for many years) render what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.”

Nearly the first shot after ratification came when the Federal government found it necessary to enforce its authority on a matter of taxes which has come to us as the minor skirmish known as the Whisky Rebellion. The final shot of the campaign came in April 1865, as the South lost the Civil War Between The States (to give it a bi-partisan title).

Because of the tendency of war to centralize power, the wars of the US since 1860 have promoted greater and greater government programs which have no “sundown” provisions, and hence accumulate. Every declaration of Peace has been the mark of a slight erosion of liberty.

But, withal, I am a liberal conservative (or a conservative liberal), neither anarchist nor libertarian, and what we have is what we live with. Speculation on radical change may be valuable in giving perspective, but the very idea of radical change itself is one which carries with it the slim chance of relief from a present ill and the near certainty of a worse disaster. (By way of illustration, can you imagine the people who would be delegates to a Constitutional Convention in 2024? I would shudder to name names of the current politicians who would be writing a new foundation for the United States.)

Life, as the philosopher told us, is a series of trade-offs. It is most romantic (and I am a romantic) to rally to the barricades and hope for imminent radical change. But I am also an Old Fart, who has already spent time on the barricades, and know what was won did not match what was lost. If in my remaining lifetime, I should see the gradual retreat of the extremist radicals (#bothsides) from their current influence , I should be “extremely” happy. To wish for a major reversal (such as repeal of the 17th Amendment) is not beyond the bounds of hope, but is one which will be accomplished neither easily nor swiftly.

For the last 50 years, the Vital Center, where most Americans are, has been eroded by fanatics and hucksters. Is it too much to expect that to reverse the course of “progress” would take at least as long, if it is to be effective, permanent, and beneficial to the USA?

Finally, I must remind you, these are my silly a$$ opinions, and can most likely be easily refuted or even shattered by anyone with even a whiff of scholarship in their background. Not only is it possible I am wrong, it is quite probable.

A Constitution,  A Constitution

I occasionally encounter remarks by those on the Left or those on the Right regarding either the malleability or the sanctity of the Constitution of the US. While their ideas of what to DO with the Constitution are rather disparate, both share one unspoken, unacknowledged, and underlying assumption regarding the Constitution. That assumption is that it was imposed on the country.

Both sides share the scenario of the composition being from a collection of rich white guys who wanted to protect their interests, and that the Ratification process was one of bludgeoning the States to accept in order to avoid a sans-culottes uprising on the part of the poor and dispossessed and real Radicals. (Like Tom Paine.)

There is perhaps some element of truth is this picture, but for those who want to a) leave it as it is, b) go back to the Articles of Confederation, or c) centralize more, More, MORE, there is the problem of not noticing how much of the provisions of the Constitution reflect the social and political realities of the day, and how little innovation there was.

Much of the structure is expressly designed to delay, obstruct, or force “fatal” compromise on popular measures. Much of it reflects the economic arrangements of the time, with a view toward keeping those arrangements intact. Much of it, in fact MOST of it still, after over 200 years, offers a stable structure and protections for Citizens, regardless of Imperial Presidency, Do-Nothing Congresses, or a Legislating SCOTUS.

There are those who want to have another Constitutional Convention and rewrite the whole thing to reflect their particular, and peculiar, partisan ideology. On all sides. And each of them would be appalled at the result, because there would be no ordination of some pre-conceived masterpiece, no ratification of a utopian scheme, but the same sorry spectacle of debate and compromise pleasing no one which characterized the First Convention.

But my curiosity bug wants to know, what would a government structure which reflected present realities look like? And, more to the point, would it be livable?

Another Thought on Government and Governing

The proper function of the State, in a democracy, is to do what the people want it to do. In an oligarchy, it is what the oligarchs, the Patricians, want, and in a monarchy or dictatorship, it is at the whim on one man. Ultimately, without theoretical notions of minimalist or totalitarian regimes, that will be found true.

Sometimes what the people want is beneficial to present and future society. But, as Kipling noted in “Gods of the Copybook Headings”, we always get the government we deserve: Not what we would like, but what we have earned — for ourselves

A Constitution, whether (mostly) written like ours, or “unwritten” like the British, is never a “done deal” wherein one generation binds its descendants in perpetuity to service of King or Country. Those who so argue have misunderstood the dynamic of government.

Here on this continent, we did not consider ourselves bound to obedience to the King, and so established a new Covenant among ourselves for our future safety and happiness. And each citizen must ratify that Covenant every moment of their lives. Should one generation, or one election cycle, fail in its maintenance of the status, it will suffer the consequences (or, as radicals claim, reap the rewards).

In the US system, the simplest argument for the right of each generation to decide its own fate is found in the section which provides for Amendments to the written Constitution. If the Founders had not recognized the necessity of such an article, if they had not realized future generations would have to adapt government to their times, if they had not recognized that history Moves, they would not have included it, and would have left us with an interesting and revered fossil.

It is not the enumerated powers as originally written down which are our guarantee of liberty and hope for prosperity, but the attitudes and sentiment of the living persons who “constitute” the nation. The Romans believed in Tribunes of the People as safeguards, and so asked, “Who shall guard the guardians?” In the USA, it is — for better or worse — the people who are the guardians of themselves. If they are virtuous, the nation will fare well. If the people have abandoned virtue, … we see what happens.