Monday, June 25, 2012

Sausage-making at the birth of the nation

Historian Pauline Maier's Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 left me wondering whether our fundamental government structure could have been put in place if the 24/7 news cycle, the internet, blogs, and accompanying public agitation had existed in the late 18th century. The Constitution excited passions, but the sheer length of time it took for news and people to travel ensured that the fights were localized, first in the various lightly populated jurisdictions within which delegates were elected to ratifying conventions, and then in the state conventions themselves. Nine states were required to bring it into force; eleven states eventually came along (and the laggards gave in) but the process involved the kind of compromising and legislative sausage-making that looks mighty ugly on close inspection.

The Constitution itself was written by an assembly of delegates in Philadelphia who closed their deliberations to the public. There they worked out numerous compromises, some very unpopular. There was to be a Senate, an undemocratic body whose members would be chosen by state legislators rather than directly elected; would serve for six year terms which were considered very long; and would include two members from each state without regard for relative populations. There was the notorious (the adjective was applicable, even then) compromise that counted slaves as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of electing Congressmen; moreover the Constitution allowed the continuation of slave importations for another 20 years. And the new government framework included no bill of rights, something some states already had in their founding documents. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Constitution would win favor with enough states.

Maier tells the story very much as it was lived; acrimonious state convention by successive state convention. Pennsylvania led off; its pro-Constitution leaders (the "Federalists") rammed an affirmative vote through over the objections of an angry minority who proceeded to carry their objections to successive state conventions. Massachusetts had one of the more democratic state conventions -- though Federalists had a clear majority, they determined not to create angry losers, listening to weeks of objections and accepting the idea the Constitution might need amendments after ratification. Virginia's convention was the most high-powered intellectually; neither side knew whether the other might have come in with a majority. Revolutionary War-era orator Patrick Henry spoke passionately (and lengthily) against the new system; James Madison honed his arguments in favor, arguments that came to be recognized as the most complete rationale for the structure. By the time New York elected its convention, Federalists and anti-Federalists had organized themselves into contending parties; the majority of the state's delegates were elected as opponents of ratification. Federalists were mainly located in New York City, representing large landowners, merchants and skilled tradesmen. The small-holder dominated, agricultural rest of the state wanted none of this novelty. But during their convention, they learned that nine states had already ratified. Moreover, New York's Federalists proved willing to listen to the need for amendments after ratification, finally carrying the day.
Maier's narrative is exhaustive and I found it somewhat dry and exhausting. Still there were numerous bits that gave me a more rounded sense of the country's early debates.
  • Then as now, policy choices were often about whether proposed structures would lead to taxation. The people we revere as the Founders aimed to create a government with a wide power to tax; they couldn't imagine an effectual government without that power. Californians could take notice.
  • George Washington had a nice turn of phrase for the push by some to hamstring the new federal government in favor of state governments; he called this effort attachment to their "darling sovereignties."
  • Political action that properly deserves the label "grass tops" -- faux populism funded and inspired by elites -- is no novelty. Maier includes a fascinating account of New York City's "Federal Celebration" in which a huge procession pulled a scale model of a ship, the Hamilton. Fascinatingly, the parade's date was chosen in part so as not to clash with a Jewish holiday. I had no idea the Jewish population of New York so large that far back.
The best of the debate over the Constitution drove its participants to try to discern thoughtfully what governance for a revolutionary people who charished "liberty" might look like. Because the Federalists won, they've largely written the history, so we are less aware what the other side was arguing for. With that in mind, I appreciated Maier's presentation of the arguments of Melancton Smith, a New York anti-Federalist, who offered a subtle alternative conception of who would best represent the people.

He proceeded to … describing the nature and function of representation in a republican government as he saw it. Representatives, Smith argued, should together be a microcosm of their constituents. They should "be a true picture of the people; possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants; sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests." That concrete knowledge of the people's needs and circumstances was better known by "men of the middling class of life . . . than those of a superior class" from which, he feared, the members of Congress would all be drawn. Smith described that "superior" or "first class in the community" as its "natural aristocracy," even though he knew his opponents would deny that any such class existed in the American republic. In every society, Smith explained, "birth, education, talents and wealth, create distinctions among men as visible and of as much influence as titles, stars and garters." Men so distinguished naturally command respect. They could also organize themselves more readily than the people at large. As a result, where the number of representatives was small and the districts large, elected offices would seldom go to substantial yeomen "of sense and discernment." A government controlled by the "few and great" would be, for the masses, "a government of oppression."

Smith denied suggesting that "the great" lacked honesty or principles. All men hold the same passions and prejudices, but the circumstances of their lives "give a cast to the human character." Men in "middling circumstances" had fewer temptations and were less able to gratify those they had. As a result, they tended to be "more temperate, of better morals and less ambition than the great" who consider themselves above the common people, demand respect, and have many of the same feelings as hereditary aristocrats. "Will anyone say" Smith asked, "that there does not exist in this country the pride of family, of wealth, of talents; and that they do not command influence and respect among the common people?" He did not propose to exclude such "natural aristocrats" from office, since "they would be more dangerous out of power than in it." Smith also conceded that they were more capable of grasping "extensive political and commercial information, such as is acquired. by men of refined education." A government should be "so framed" to admit such men "together with a sufficient number of the middling class to control them." He thought a representative body "composed principally of the respectable yeomanry" -- like the ratifying convention -- was "the best possible security to liberty" because the body of every nation consisted of that class, and when its interest was pursued "the public good is pursued."

Smith's position was the direct opposite of James Madison's in the tenth number of The Federalist. Madison saw the threat of majoritarian tyranny in the direct representation of a community's various interests.

Reading this book, I found myself wondering whether I would have been a supporter or an opponent of the Constitution. Of course it wouldn't have mattered a whit -- women had no voice in these debates.
As is the case with many of the books I describe here, I "read" this one as an audiobook. This was not enjoyable. The reader seemed little interested in quite a dense text. But worse, he was addicted to a mispronunciation of the name of one of my ancestors who figured prominently. Mr. Elbridge Gerry, according to family lore, pronounced his last name more like the steel town in Indiana than like Ben & Jerry's. The mispronunciation is common, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society. It grated on my ear.

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