Friday, February 14, 2014

Which Founder of the United States Said What

'We The People...Need A Compromise!'
One of the most interesting things we get to do on a regular basis is invite constitutional scholars to speak to undergraduate and older adult leaders who should run for public office one day.

Stewart Harris is one of those folks. He teaches at the Appalachian Law School in Grundy, VA which is about as far west as you can go in the state and not be in Kentucky.

He is affiliated with the Center on the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier which means that he knows a lot about the Constitution, its inner workings and meanings and its history.

He recently visited North Carolina and got all snarled up in the recent snowstorm, which to someone from the mountains of western Virginia must have looked rather tame by comparison.

But he said something that caught our attention. We thought we would share it with you.

He said he loves talking to people who insist they know what the 'original intent' of the Founders of the United States was and what they would want for America today.

First of all, you have got to wonder how many people have ever actually read the Constitution from stem to stern. With comprehension. Not just a cursory reading.

Second, you have to wonder how they are able to divine exactly what John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were thinking 227 years ago when they were in Philadelphia drafting and debating the new Constitution after the abysmal failure of the Articles of Confederation for the 8 years prior to then.

But the question that Stewart says always trips people up is this:
'WHICH Founder are you talking about?'
Mr. Harris goes on to explain that 55 different people attended at least one session of the Constitutional Convention in Philly; 33 actually signed the final document before it was sent off to the states for ratification.

In each of the 13 states, ratifying conventions were held where several hundred delegates nationwide at the time got to express their opinion of the new Constitution and 'what the vision for America's future would look like under it'.

All of these hundreds of delegates at the state and national level were 'Founders' in some sense of the word or another, weren't they?

So which Founder are people talking about when they say: 'I am for Constitutional principles, just like our Founding Fathers!'?

Are these 'original intent' people saying they want to follow the Constitution 'as written'? In which case, they have the very problematic problem that the US Constitution, as great as we think it is today, at its core made 100% sure that slavery would be the law of the land for at least 20 more years. Only one specific amendment is mentioned in the Constitution and that is the one that said NO amendment to abolish slavery during that time could be considered by Congress.

The one issue the Founders did not really solve in the beginning at all was the issue of slavery. In fact, they 'punted' on it very much like our elected representatives, senators and Presidents have 'punted' on the issue of entitlement spending in the US since about 1980 or so.

Very tough political issues get kicked down the road to the 'next generation' to solve, don't you know.

These men, as educated and brilliant as they could be at the time, hated each other over time! Jefferson hated Hamilton; Hamilton hated Jefferson; Adams hated Jefferson; Adams hated Hamilton and Jefferson and Hamilton both hated Adams with passion.

There is also the troubling problem that the Anti-Federalists hated the Constitution, even though many of them fought in the War Against British Imperialism. Some, such as George Mason of Virginia, participated and contributed greatly in the 4-month debate in Philadelphia only to not sign it because it lacked a Bill of Rights that would be added later after ratification by 9 of the 13 states.

Was the Anti-Federalist/Bill of Rights advocate George Mason not a 'Founder' of this country?

Remember Patrick Henry, 'Give me Liberty or Give me Death!'? He was all for the Revolutionary War but he was decidedly against the passage of the Constitution in its victorious aftermath. He was a 'Founder' too, wasn't he?

The fact of the matter is that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and the ratifying conventions for the next 2 years really did not agree a whole heckuva lot on a whole lot of specific things. The Southern slave-holding states sure as heck didn't agree with the abolitionist sentiments of many in the north. The big states looked down upon the small states with disdain and little respect for what they could bring to the new nation.

So, which 'Founder' do you think you agree with when or if you state that you 'support what the Founders wanted as expressed and written in the US Constitution'?

Alexander Hamilton, close confidant to General Washington, agreed with his boss that a new muscular central government was crucial to the survival of the American Republic, especially when they remembered how hard it was to provision, re-supply and re-stock the Revolution Army under the pitifully weak Articles of Confederation. Are you 'for' Hamilton's principles that are reflected in the Constitution?

Thomas Jefferson wasn't even there in Philadelphia in person since he was in Paris begging for money for the new Republic and trying to work on trade treaties to bolster commerce for American raw materials. But he was there in spirit as he corresponded abundantly with James Madison, the Architect of the Constitution many consider him. Both Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison favored a weaker federal government with more power to the states and both regretted the passage of the Constitution later in their careers.

Except when they both became President, that is. Then they wanted to use every executive power in the Constitution to advance their political goals and agenda. Of course.

By the way, for the record, Mr. Hamilton 'won' on almost every score when it came to having a strong muscular central government. He assumed all the debt from the states; he started the first central bank (think 'Federal Reserve'); he started the Coast Guard, the US Mint and virtually everything that goes into being the Secretary of the US Treasury, perhaps the most important of all Cabinet functions today.

There is almost no vestige of the agrarian, 'small government' utopia envisioned by Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison. Anywhere in the nation today.

And yet, despite all of their profound differences, the delegates to the constitutional convention somehow found a way to come to a collective decision to pass the Constitution and get on with starting the greatest country the world has ever known.

Here's the over-arching principles we think the Founders actually agreed upon at Philadelphia in the hot, smelly summer of 1787. See if you think any of these should be the underlying principles we should try to emulate today:
  1. 'We need a government so we can defend our nation against foreign aggressors!'
  2. 'We need a government to regulate commerce and protect the rule of law!'
  3. 'We need a government that forces us all to compromise even when we really don't want to compromise at all!'
  4. 'We need a government that does not put all of its power of the hands of one person who could become a tyrant like the King of England!'
  5. 'We need a government that solves our national problems so we can live our lives in peace back home in the states with 'freedom and justice for all'!' (words not in the Constitution, by the way)
Everything else, it seems to us, is fluff and puff.  We think these are the true underlying principles our Founders were operating under because let's face it, if they didn't get their act together in 1787, France or England was going to invade them and take over the rich new assets of America and/or we were going to destroy our economy with hyper-inflation and seriously depreciated currency.

Something had to be done. The US Constitution is a product of that urgency to 'get something, ANYTHING! done!'

Our Founders fought like cats and dogs over how they wanted to be governed. Just like we are doing today on a daily basis.

It might help if we had our generation's versions of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison serving in Congress and the White House. Who would they be? Colin Powell, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Jon Stewart?

Whenever you encounter someone who says they are for 'constitutional principles', ask them the question that Stewart Harris asks people he encounters on a regular basis. 'WHICH Founder are you talking about?'

You ought to have some pretty interesting discussions thereafter.

* You can follow Stewart Harris by clicking on the following links:
Stewart Harris, Professor of Law, Appalachian School of Law
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