FROM 1492 TO 1920



Search Historical Newspaper Collections


The Constitution

2nd half

Return to Chapter 22 part 1 

 In the course of the discussion as to the Executive, Elbridge Gerry wished to secure the interests of property by providing that the Executive should have a property qualification-, upon which Gouverneur Morris tellingly replied: If qualifications are proper, I should prefer them in the electors rather than the elected." Dickinson, who was always ready with sentiments, added: "A veneration for poverty and virtue is the object, of republican encouragement." The convention at no time advocated a property qualification for any public office.

The question finally arose, how was the Constitution to be ratified: by the legislatures of the various States, or by the people? Ellsworth and some others thought the legislatures should do this; but it was answered that one legislature might undo the acts of a preceding one, whereas a ratification direct from the body of the people would be irreversible. By a vote of nine States against Delaware, it was resolved that the ratification should be performed by an assembly in each State chosen by the people specially for that purpose.

Rutledge, the foremost statesman of the country south of Virginia, was then chosen chairman of a committee to prepare and report on the form of the Constitution; the other members were Gorham, Ellsworth, Wilson, and Randolph. The. convention now adjourned from the 26th of July to the 6th of August. "I trust," wrote Monroe to Jefferson, "that the presence of General Washington will overawe and keep under the demon of party, and that the signature of his name to the result of their deliberations will secure its passage through the Union."

In due season the revised draft of the Constitution was submitted to the convention, 'which then proceeded to discuss it anew. The speech of Gouverneur Morris on the question of admitting slaves to representation is worth remembering. He moved that there should be no representation but of free inhabitants, , and said :"I never will concur in upholding domestic slavery. It is the curse of heaven on the States where it prevails. Travel through the continent, and you behold the prospect varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. Upon what principle shall slaves be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property in eluded? It comes to this-that the inhabitant Of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with horror so nefarious a practice. And what is the compensation to the Northern States for a sacrifice of right and humanity? They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defense of the Southern States against those very slaves of whom they complain. They must supply vessels and seamen in case of foreign attack. The legislature will have indefinite power to tax' them by excises and duties on imports, both of which will fall heavier on them than on the Southern inhabitants. On the other side, the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of Africans, thus increasing the danger of attack and the difficulty of defense; navy they are to be encouraged to it by an assurance of having their votes. in the National Government increased in pro. portion; and at the same time to have their exports and their slaves exempt from all contribution to the public service. I will sooner submit myself to a tax for paying for all the negroes in the United States than saddle posterity with such a Constitution" The case was vigorously stated; but the motion was lost by a majority of ten against one (New Jersey).

As to paper money, Morris wished to deny permission to emit bills on the credit of the United States; for if the States had credit they were unnecessary; if not, they would be useless. Mason preferred not to tie the hands of the legislature; but the vote went against conceding authority to issue bills of credit by nine to two. "No State shall emit bills of credit: no State shall make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts." Such were the words which were intended to put a final end to the existence of paper money in America.

There had been of lat e plans for grouping several States in such a manner that they might act in a measure independently of the rest; this was explicitly forbidden by the clause-"No State shall enter into any agreement or compact with any other State." But on the other hand intercitizenship was recognized "The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States." The individual was free. The defect, the inconsistency, the. weakness of the Constitution was the slavery question. The South frankly intimated that if the right of any State to import slaves were refused, the States which imported them would secede-from the Union. They denied that any moral or religious criticism applied; it was a matter of business. If let alone, they said, they would, very likely, put an end to the practice themselves. The Constitution however gave power to prohibit the importation of slaves in new States, and in existing States at the end of the year 1807. Rather than sacrifice the Union, the Northern members of the convention agreed to accept this compromise; but some of the best minds on both sides of the slave line foresaw the ultimate result. Meanwhile, emancipation by taxation of slaves was guarded against by the clause, "No capitation tag shall be laid unless in proportion to the census."

An interesting discussion was aroused by the difficulty of devising means for the creation of a President-an officer hitherto unknown in governments. The manner of his choice, the length of his incumbency, and his reeligibility were to be decided, as well as.the extent of his powers. Some wished him to be chosen directly by the people; others by an electoral college; others by the States. The suggestion that he be chosen by the National Legislature was negatived by the consideration that in that case he would tend to become their creature. The electoral college was thought to be too complex and expensive a scheme; election by the people would be election by lot. Williamson declared that America would sooner or later have a king, and in order to postpone that consummation, preferred a triple executive. Dickinson proposed thirteen candidates, one to be chosen by each of the thirteen States, and from this number he would have the Legislature choose the President. Morris said: "Of all modes of appointing the Executive, an election by the people is the best: by the Legislature the worst. I prefer a short term, and reeligibility, but a different mode of election."

The mode which he preferred was by electors. A committee to whom the subject was assigned reported that the Presidential term should be four years, and that the election should be by electors appointed in each State, equal in numbers to the National Congress. The method of election was then specified. Of this plan, Wilson remarked that "it gets rid of cabal and corruption, and clears the way for the reeligibility of the President on its own merits." Difficulty was found in providing that the small States should have an equal chance with the large ones of furnishing a President; and another danger was seen in the possible aristocratic influence of the Senate over the choice of the Executive. Patience and intelligence of a high order were required to find a way through these obstacles. The powers vested in the President were defined; he was not permitted to prorogue or dissolve the Legislature; but, to insure against the too great predominance of the latter, he was to have a veto on their acts which could be overridden only by a threefourths vote. The question of a privy council was much debated; some proposed that there should be none; but "the Grand Seigneur himself has his Divan," remarked Mason. But of what persons was the council to consist? This could not be decided at that time.

The debate on the judiciary branch of the Government has less general interest, and was marked by less divergence of opinion. Finally the convention agreed that "this Constitution shall be laid before the United States in Congress assembled; and it is the opinion of this convention that it should be afterward submitted to a convention chosen in each State, under the recommendation of its legislature, in order to receive the ratification of such convention." But before the great instrument went forth, it was carefully rewritten by, Gouverneur Morris, who was a master of terse and pregnant style; and its clauses arranged by a committee of which he and Johnson, Hamilton, Madison, and King were members.

When all was done, Randolph, Governor of Virginia, refused to sign the Constitution, not, as he explained, because he meant to oppose it hereafter, but in order to "keep himself free to be governed by his duty." Franklin said: Several parts of the Constitution I do not at present approve; but I am not sure that I never shall approve them:. It astonishes me to find this, system approaching so near perfection. I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument." Morris said: "I too had objections, but considering the present plan the best that can be attained, I shall take it with its faults. The moment it goes forth, the question will be, 'Shall there be a national government or a general anarchy?"' Hamilton added: "I am anxious that. every member shall sign. A few by refusing may do ifinite mischief. No man's ideas are more remote from the plan than my own are known to be; but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on the one side, and the chance of good on the other?" But Randolph, with Mason and Gerry, refused their names. "I expect civil war," said the latter. "In Massachusetts there are two parties, one devoted to democracy, the worst, I think, of all political evils; the other as violent in the opposite extreme. From the collision of these two, confusion is greatly to be feared."

These faint hearts only effected their own discredit. On that September day, as man after man came forward to affix his name to the great sheet of engrossed parchment, each may have felt that he was helping to build a monument more enduring than brass, and loftier than mountains. "The members were awe. struck at the result of their councils; the Constitution was a nobler work than any of them had thought it possible to devise." The same evening (September 17, 1787) they adjourned sine die.

The convention having done its work, the people were to express their opinion upon it. There is something sublime in this spectacle, though the idea of it has long since become familiar to us and to the rest of the world. How short a time since the people of a country neither had nor could hope to have any voice in determining the manner in which they should be governed: only of late had they acquired even so much as the doubtful right to protest when they were governed erned scandalously amiss! Now we see them quietly taking their place as sovereigns; and as sovereigns determining the conditions by and on which their sovereignty should be exercised:

Congress found something to say against the Constitution; as could hardly be avoided, since its adoption must be the signal of Congress's decease. They had, however, learned by bitter experience their own inefficacy; they had recommended the convention; and all they could finally do now was to recommend, in a neutral spirit (though there was a majority in favor of positively advocating its adoption), that it should be submitted to conventions appointed for its consideration in the several States. These conventions were called together and did their work in about a ,year from the date of adjournment of the convention; in that time nine out of thirteen States had ratified it, by various majorities, ranging from unanimity to a majority of nine to eight. New York and North Carolina resisted long, owing to local causes; and the last to give its voice was Rhode Island. But the adhesion of each fresh State helped that of the rest; Massachusetts exercised a powerful effect, and Virginia, after holding the fate of the Union in the balance for some months, finally met and defeated her opposition, of which Patrick Henry was the most eloquent, though not the most weighty member. New Hampshire had preceded Virginia by a few days only. Pennsylvania, aided by her honored Franklin, then over eighty years of age, had early joined the honorable company, stimulated by the example of Delaware, whose vote had been unanimous. Georgia had been among the most ardent of the supporters of the Constitution; and South Carolina had delighted her veteran patriot Gadsden, who had been on the right side in every question which had agitated the country since before the Revolution began, by her generous adhesion. Connecticut gave a large majority, after wise discussion; and at no time and in no place was there serious danger that the verdict of the country as a whole would be other than favorable to the new Government.

It is noticeable, indeed, that none of the arguments advanced against the Constitution had any vital significance : almost all of them had already been considered by the convention, and provided against. The rest were trivial. One of the amendments widely suggested was the introduction of a Declaration of Rights. The reply, offered in various forms, was to the effect that no specific declaration of the kind was needed in an instrument proceeding from the people themselves. "A limited government can exercise no powers not specially granted to it," said Wilson; and Bowdoin of Massachusetts added: "The whole Constitution is a bill of rights." Other objections related to the preponderance of power of one part of the country over another, and to the handling of the slavery question. A treaty stupidly advocated by Jay with Spain, by which, in return for commercial privileges, the latter was to be allowed exclusive navigation of the Mississippi for twenty-five or thirty years, threatened to make trouble, because the South feared its adoption by the North in opposition to her interests; but the danger passed. There were some purely selfish attacks, as, for example, when Patrick Henry, assuming to speak for Virginia, said: "The other States can not do without us, and we can dictate to them"; and again, "Old as I am, I may yet have the appellation of a rebel; but my friends will protect me." But Henry was perhaps less in earnest than he seemed to be; he accepted the result amiably enough when it came. He was a good champion of liberty, but not a wise statesman. The bitterest foe of the Constitution was Richard Henry Lee, who was never weary of promoting intrigues, not always honorable, against it. Mason was honestly distrustful; Randolph was won to the cause of the supporters. John Adams of Massachusetts spoke in favor of the Constitution, adding: "It appears to be admirably calculated to cement all America in affection and interest as one great nation. A result of compromise cannot perfectly coincide with every one's ideas of perfection, but as all the great principles necessary to order, liberty, and safety are respected in it, and provision is made for amendments as they may be found necessary, I hope to hear of its adoption by all the States." Jefferson admitted that lie was no friend to a very energetic government, believing it would be always oppressive; but "it is my principle that the will of the majority should prevail; if they approve, I shall cheerfully concur. The Constitution," he added, "is a good canvas on which some strokes only need retouching. I am not of the party of Federalists, but I am much further from that of the anti Federalists." Washington wrote: "There is no alternative between its adoption and anarchy. All the opposition to it that I have seen, is addressed more to the passions than to reason." Wiison, speaking of the powers intrusted to Congress, said: "It is necessary to mention a kind of liberty which has not yet received a name: I shall distinguish it as Federal liberty. The States should resign to the National Government that part only of their political liberty which, placed in that Government, Rill produce more good to the whole than if it had remained in the several States. While they resign this part of their political liberty, they retain the free and generous exercise of all their other faculties, so far as is compatible with the welfare of the general and superintending confederacy." - "This system is not a compact; the introduction is not an unmeaning flourish; the system itself tells you what it is-an ordinance, an establishment of the people." In South Carolina, Rutledge, answering Lowndes, who with what seemed treasonable motives had opposed ratification with all his powers, said that all the latter's alleged grounds of opposition were mere declamation; that his boasted confederation was not worth a farthing; that if such instruments were piled up to his chin they would not shield him from a single national calamity; that the sun of South Carolina, so far from being obscured by the new Constitution, would, when united with twelve other suns, astonish the world by its luster. Madison pointed out that the Constitution in part was a consolidated union, and in part rested so completely on the States that its life was bound up in theirs. The powers of Congress were not so much an augmentation of powers as a change made necessary in order to give efficacy to those vested in it before. Virginia and New Hampshire ratified the Constitution, respectively, on the 25th and the 21st of June, 1788. New York, after an obstinate resistance, acceded on the 26th of July of the same year; North Carolina followed in 1789, and Rhode Island was last in 1790.

Throughout this long and critical period, the influence of Washington had been felt, and was beneficently operative; not so much by what he said and wrote, as by what he was and had been. He was trusted by the whole people as was no other American of his time; he had been first in war, and he was inevitably first also in peace. He was the center toward which all lines converged, and which held the entire community in structural unity. The power of character has seldom, in the history of the world, been so strikingly illustrated. It never can be known how many, of the supporters of the Constitution, wavering in their opinion, had their uncertainty relieved by the reflection that Washington would be the country's safeguard. Congress might be distrusted, or the wisdom of some of the provisions of the Constitution, or a man might distrust himself; but there was none who did not trust Washington, and while he should live no danger could appear vitally serious.

The Constitution carries out that principle of the freedom of the individual which had its first expression in the emigration of the Pilgrim Fathers. Self-government is a simple thing for a man, or for a community of a few men; but the problem of selfgovernment becomes more difficult and complex as population increases, up to a certain limit. Beyond that limit, either selfgovernment must cease or a plan must be devised by which it can be carried on safely and efficiently under any conceivable expansion of conditions. No such plan had been seen in operation in the world until the American Constitution was created. History might furnish materials, but not the design. Even the makers of it builded better than they knew; because none of them had foreseen from the beginning what its final form would be; they had worked from point to point, and their only means of assuring the success of the complete edifice was in making each constituent part of it sound and just. God guided them by inspiring into their work a true principle of life, as He inspires it into natural things; so that when at- length they had done their duty as best they knew it, and retired from the work of their hands, they beheld with surprise a beautiful and symmetrical temple rising against the blue of heaven. As the artist who has created true beauty feels that it . is not his, but is be-, yond him, so the makers of the Constitution felt when they humbly marveled at what they had been the instruments of. bringing to pass. `

The Constitution frees the individual in the practice of his religion; and but for the temporary deformity of slavery frees him in labor also. It- enables him to make his own laws and to select those who shall execute them. . Whatever he wants he may have; provided only that, in this freedom of his, he do not interfere with the equal freedom of his fellow. "Have not I a right to sit by your fire?" asks the frontiersman, approaching the lonely camp of the other. "Yes," is the reply, "so long as you don't interfere with my right to sit by it alone." Freedom must not mean selfishness. The people of the United States are a very different thing from the people of. America. They are. not an inchoate mass of persons on the one side, and a government, which must needs be autocratic, on the other; but they are an organization of societies of individuals, called States, subdivided into smaller societies, also self-governing, down to the single family. The boundaries of the lesser are never overridden or obliterated by the larger, but on the contrary give them their pattern. The majority rules, but it can never tyrannize, because the majority is made up of numerous minorities each and all of which have their separate voice in the grand chorus. If it be found, on thorough experience, that any provision of the Constitution is incompatible with the permanent welfare of any reasonable and lawful component part of the body corporate, means are arranged to so modify or amend it as to reconcile the good of the part with that of the whole. Just complaints must always have their weight; despotism and revolution are impossible, where constitutional means of improvement are ever available. The only condition required of the individual, in order to secure justice, is that he shall always take his proper part in the government; and wherever the United States has failed to insure 'the good of the community, in whole and in part, it is where this condition has not. been observed. When the individual prefers to attend to his private and selfish concerns to the neglect of his civic duties, and has delegated these to professional, politicians,". harm has resulted. But it is a harm which can always be cured by reverting to civic duties; and we have seen not once but many times how abuses have been corrected when they had proceeded so far as to awake the people to their enormity.

We are now to follow the progress of the States in their gradual development under the Constitution, noting the causes of their grand and uniform success, and of their minor and transient failures.