User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

In Virginia the contest was desperate. Only good fortune and hard work could bring success to the Federalists, for their opponents were ably led and were aided by local conditions. The source of the determined opposition is hard to trace. Oliver Ellsworth declared that it "wholly originated in two principles; the madness of Mason, and the enmity of the Lee faction to General Washington. Had the General not attended the convention nor given his sentiments respecting the constitution, the Lee party would undoubtedly have supported it, and Col. Mason would have vented his rage to his own negroes and to the winds."

In truth, however, there were other causes than personal pique and mean-minded jealousy: the spirit of local pride and the fear for personal liberty were easily aroused in Virginia; the western sections were already excited over the possibility of the surrender of American rights to Spain, while others were beginning to look with suspicion on the commercial power of the New England states. Here, as elsewhere, the more thickly populated districts were favorable to the Constitution, and sectional conditions had their influence. In the eastern section four-fifths of the delegates that were chosen to the convention favored adoption; in the middle district, peopled by small farmers, three-fourths were opposed to adoption. The region somewhat farther west, also peopled by small farmers, who were chiefly Scotch-Irish and Germans from Pennsylvania, was almost a unit for adoption. On the other hand, nine-tenths of the delegates from the Kentucky region were Anti-Federalists.

The leaders of both parties were able and untiring. Though Lee was not elected a member of the convention, he worked sedulously against adoption. Henry, at the head of the Anti-Federal delegates, exclaimed and expostulated in a turbulent stream of rhetoric. Mason, bitterly complaining over the establishment of a national government and over Congressional authority to regulate commerce, opposed the Constitution to the end with characteristic energy. Grayson also was in opposition, and Monroe, neglecting to follow the guidance of the wiser Madison, gave the Anti-Federalists such aid as he could.

Strong as these men were, they were met by their equals. Washington was not a member of the convention, but his unwavering support of the Constitution and his broad-minded utterances concerning the absolute necessity of union were of incalculable value. Randolph had by this time given up his uncertainty, and he spoke eloquently for adoption. John Marshall, a young man of thirty-two, with a clear head and an easy command of sound logic, was chosen to the convention and argued ably for the Constitution. Madison was the active leader of the Federalist forces, and he led them well; his temper was never ruffled nor his reason clouded. A careful study of Henry's brilliant oratory leaves one in wonder that day after day his fervid exclamations were answered with imperturbable calmness and placid good sense. Madison had none of the graces of oratory; he was small and unimpressive; his manner seemed at times to betoken irresolution; when he rose to speak, his voice was low, and he stood hat in hand as if he had just come in to give a passing word of counsel. But he knew what he was talking about, he was prepared to speak, and he did not envelop his thought in ornamental rhetorical wrappings.

Henry began the contest in the convention by dramatically declaring that the conduct of the delegates to Philadelphia should be investigated. "Even from that illustrious man who saved us by his valor, I would have a reason for his conduct." "What right," he exclaimed, "had they to say, We, the people? . . . Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states." He declared that the Constitution established a consolidated government and that the sovereignty of the states would be relinquished. Mason, too, asserted that "whether the Constitution be good or bad," the power to tax clearly showed that the new government was a national government: "The assumption of this power of laying direct taxes does, of itself, entirely change the confederation of the states into one consolidated government."

To such declarations, it was hard to give an explicit answer. Madison could only say that the new system was neither a thoroughly consolidated government nor a mere confederation: "It stands by itself. In some respects it is a government of a federal nature; in others, it is of a consolidated nature." Henry ridiculed this strange new government, "so new, it wants a name. I wish its other novelties were as harmless as this." But his ridicule was misplaced; though we have lived over a hundred years under the Constitution, we should have difficulty in describing its system much more accurately than Madison then described it. It did not provide for a centralized state nor did it provide for a mere league of states. In the essays that Madison was then writing for the press, seeking to allay the fears of the people for the security of the states, he made a similar assertion: "The proposed Constitution, therefore, even when tested by the rules laid down by its antagonists, is in strictness, neither a National nor a Federal Constitution; but a composition of both." Another Federal member of the convention, Mr. Corbin, aptly called the new government "a representative federal republic, as contradistinguished from a confederacy."

To obtain amendments as a condition of ratification or to secure the meeting of a second federal convention seems to have been Henry's purpose. But, indeed, there was little in the Constitution that suited him and his eager followers. In comparison with such a consolidated government, small confederacies, he declared, were little evils. The dangers of the new system were many and evident: the president would become a tyrant; America would be enslaved; there was no proper security for a safe basis of representation; Congress, by its power of taxation, would clutch the purse with one hand and wave the sword with the other; customs officers, for whom the American people cherished a hereditary hatred, would burden the people with their exactions. "I never will give up that darling word requisitions," exclaimed Henry, with dramatic pathos; "my country may give it up; a majority may wrest it from me, but I will never give it up till my grave."

The clause giving Congress power to lay taxes to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States was termed the "sweeping clause"; it would in the end bestow all authority on the central government. There was great and serious danger lurking in the clause giving Congress exclusive power of legislation over a district ten miles square. "This ten miles square," said Mr. Mason, "may set at defiance the laws of the surrounding states, and may, like the custom of the superstitious days of our ancestors, become the sanctuary of the blackest crimes." The treaty-making power was fraught with grave perils, and the Anti-Federalists, desiring to hold the vote of the Kentucky members, insisted that the closure of the Mississippi could more easily be brought about if the Constitution were adopted."

These objections were met by the Federalists with good arguments. The "sweeping clause" was shown to contain no new powers, but to indicate only the purposes of taxation — to provide for the common defense and general welfare. Without exclusive legislation within ten miles square. Congress might be subjected to insult. As for the Mississippi, no reasonable treaty securing America's rights of navigation could be obtained under a weak and ineffective government. The convention was urged to assure the success of the Constitution by ratifying it as the ninth state; for, as we have said, New Hampshire's action was not yet known in Virginia.

The opponents of the Constitution objected to the clause allowing the importation of slaves for twenty years. "As much as I value a union of all the states," said Mason, "I would not admit the Southern States into the Union unless they agree to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade." Yet he complained that Congress might, by taxation, bring about emancipation. Tyler pronounced the trade impolitic, iniquitous, and disgraceful. Henry, confessing that slavery was detested and declaring that it would rejoice his very soul if every one of his fellow beings were set free, held up the fear that the northern states would free the slaves and declare "that every black man must fight."

After a three weeks session, the convention was ready for a final vote. The Anti-Federalists debated to the end. The Federalists were willing that amendments to be adopted after ratification should be recommended, but Henry still asserted that there was no trouble about getting them adopted before ratification and that subsequent amendments would but make matters worse. "The proposition of subsequent amendments is only to lull our apprehensions," he exclaimed. "Will gentlemen tell me that they are in earnest about these amendments? I am convinced they mean nothing serious." When the vote came, eighty-nine delegates voted for ratification and seventy-nine against ratification (June 25, 1788). The resolution was accompanied by a solemn statement that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States, might be resumed by them whenever the powers were perverted to their injury or oppression. A list of twenty articles constituting a bill of rights was added, beginning, of course, with the essential assertion "that there are certain natural rights, of which men, when they form a social compact, cannot deprive or divest their posterity," Twenty other amendments were presented, and the convention in the name and behalf of the people of Virginia enjoined upon their representatives in Congress the duty of working for the adoption of all the amendments to the Constitution.

Difficult as was the task of the Federalists in Virginia and Massachusetts, still greater trouble faced them in New York, where the Anti-Federalists were led by George Clinton and formed a strong party of opposition. The city of New York and the immediate neighborhood were enthusiastically in favor of adoption; most of Long Island and a portion of the east bank of the Hudson were evenly divided; but the whole interior region was in opposition. More than half the goods consumed in Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, and western Massachusetts were bought within the limits of New York and paid an import duty into its coffers. This fact caused many New Yorkers to hesitate to surrender to the general government the power to levy certain duties, and it called forth obstinate and selfish opposition to the new Constitution. The great landholders of the state, who were naturally jealous and conservative, were supported by the paper-money men and by the small band of officeholders, who feared that the state imposts would be lost and their salaries reduced.

Some of these men were opposed not so much to the Constitution as to the federal impost. The Federalists of the city and its vicinity were, however, very much in earnest and were not willing even to contemplate the organization of the new republic without New York; if Clinton and his followers were intent on holding aloof from the Union, what was to prevent the southern portion of the state from establishing an organization and ratifying the Constitution?

Under the circumstances, to win the vote of New York was difficult in the extreme. Hamilton proposed to Jay and Madison the publication of a series of papers in defense of the Constitution. They bore the title of "The Federalist," and appeared in the Independent Journal, the Daily Advertiser, the Packet, and other New York papers, over the name of "Publius." There is still some dispute as to the exact part taken by each member of this competent triumvirate. Jay undoubtedly wrote but five of the essays; Madison seems to have been the author of twenty-nine, and Hamilton of fifty-one. Jay discussed the provisions of the Constitution affecting foreign affairs and the existing relations with foreign powers; Madison considered the foundations of government, the nature of confederacies and the examples of the past, the republican character of the new Constitution, the principle of separation of governmental powers, and representation under the new system. Hamilton commented on the need for union, on the danger of separation or the establishment of separate confederacies, on the glaring defects of the old Confederation, on the need for a government that could address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals, on the functions of the executive and judicial departments, and oil the necessity for the regulation of commerce.

All of these essays are written in a style simple, clear, and straightforward. Abstruse as are the topics discussed, there is no ambiguity, no faltering, no juggling after the manner of demagogues. Each proposition is presented by men who expected to be heard and wished to convince the listener. While every word spoken bears directly on the great issue at hand, there is no sign of littleness, no personal allusions, no narrowness of view; general principles are laid down with daring and assurance by men who were still young in years but had read widely and had studied human nature. "The Federalist" did not make much stir at the time, though some men were impressed by its power. And yet in the heat of this crisis, these men were turning off with astonishing rapidity one of the greatest works ever written in the realm of political science. Perhaps America has as yet made no more signal contribution to learning or to literature.

When the New York convention assembled at Poughkeepsie in June, two-thirds of the delegates were hostile to the Constitution; and the task that confronted Hamilton, Jay, and Robert R. Livingston was a serious one. Lansing, Clinton, and Melancthon Smith led in the assault and were supported by their feebler followers. There was no disposition to defend the existing Confederation or to deny that the country needed peace and prosperity, but the Anti-Federalists were unwilling to accept the Constitution as a remedy.

For a time the chief object of attack was the system of representation, which was declared to be inadequate. Congress, it was said, would be corrupt and vicious; positions would be secured for life; the senators would become especially dangerous. "What will be their situation in a federal town?" exclaimed one delegate. "Nothing so unclean as state laws to enter there, surrounded, as they will be, by an impenetrable wall of adamant and gold, the wealth of the whole country flowing into it." Someone wanted to know what "wall" the speaker meant; "on which he turned, and replied, "A wall of gold — of adamant, which will flow in from all parts of the continent." In spite of the amusement of the audience at his liquid wall of adamant, he went on to lament the luxurious life of congressmen within the sacred precincts of the federal city. In general, of course, the arguments of the opposition were based on fear and suspicion, but there was not the narrow class jealousy that was manifested in Massachusetts, nor the flood of exuberant oratory that was poured out in Virginia. The union of the purse and sword, the extensive power of taxation granted to the national government, and the weakness of the states, were all dwelt on at length as reasons for the rejection of the Constitution.

After the convention had been a week in session, the news was brought that New Hampshire had ratified, and the establishment of the new Constitution was assured. On July 3 came the announcement that Virginia also had thrown in her lot with the majority. If New York rejected the Constitution, she was separated from the other states and stood with Rhode Island and North Carolina. Such a fact must have acted as a powerful argument on the minds of the Anti-Federalists.

By this time different proposals, short of absolute rejection, were considered: to draw up and present amendments for adoption before ratification; to ratify and at the same time propose amendments with the declaration that, if the amendments should not be adopted within a certain time, the state would withdraw from the Union; and, lastly, to ratify and recommend amendments with the hope of their adoption. Hamilton, fearing that without material concession his opponents would win the day, wrote to Madison to inquire his opinion as to the propriety of a conditional ratification with "the reservation of a right to secede" if proper amendments were not made. "My opinion is," replied Madison, "that a reservation of a right to withdraw, if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification; that it does not make New York a member of the new Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan."

Though Hamilton is said to have declared that the convention should never rise till the Constitution was adopted, to the end there seemed little hope of success. He debated untiringly and with remarkable power and eloquence. At length, the opposition began to give way, and Melancthon Smith himself, giving up his attempt to force conditional ratification, voted with the Federalists in favor of accepting the Constitution, "in full confidence" that certain amendments would be adopted. The final vote stood thirty for ratification and twenty-seven against it. Before the vote was taken a resolution was unanimously passed favoring the preparation of a circular letter to the states recommending a second constitutional convention. The resolution, declared by Madison to be of "most pestilent tendency," was in reality a cheap price to pay for unconditional ratification. Counting New York, eleven states had adopted the Constitution, and, in spite of the demands of the politicians, the people were not ready to enter once again upon the troublesome task that was but just finished.

The circular letter, however, did for a time have some effect. In Virginia, it fell on good ground, for the assembly, led by Henry, who was uneasy under defeat, was ready to do his bidding. A reply to the New York letter was drawn up, a circular to the states, and a memorial to Congress; the objections to the Constitution were said not to be founded on speculative theory but deduced from the principles established by the melancholy example of other nations and of different ages. In Pennsylvania, the Anti-Federalists, among whom Albert Gallatin now took a leading part, demanded a speedy revision by a general convention but recommended the people of the state to acquiesce in the organization of the government.

Two states lingered behind the others — Rhode Island, which was in no condition to do anything wise, and North Carolina, which lacked unity, was under the influence of frontier sentiment and had not felt the pressure experienced by the commercial sections of the Union. The letter from New York probably affected the course of North Carolina, for the convention of that state came to no decision, the opponents of the Constitution refusing either to ratify or reject, and awaiting developments.

Rhode Island was still intent on showing her superiority over her neighbors; when the Constitution was received by the legislature, it voted to have the document printed and distributed, so that the people might have "an opportunity of forming their sentiments" on the matter. Some time afterward the legislature solemnly enacted that on the fourth Monday in March "all the freemen and freeholders" should convene in their several towns and there deliberate upon the Constitution. The town meetings were farcical: the Federalists as a rule refused to vote, and the result was that 237 were counted as voting for adoption and 2,708 in the negative. The Federalists were, however, not idle. They formed a strong minority, and their ability and strength were destined to win before long and to wrest the state from the hands of the ignorant, suspicious, and bigoted men who had already brought it into disrepute. Even in Rhode Island the Federalists did not entirely despair. There was still hope that the "inconsiderate people" would not fill "up the measure of iniquity"; the belief prevailed that the scales were "ready to drop from the eyes, and the infatuation to be removed from the heart," of the state.

We have now traced the establishment of the supreme law of the new republic; we have seen how the American people found adequate political organization, and closed, for a time at least, the great political drama that began with the Stamp Act, when England and America entered on the dispute as to the distribution of power and the principles of government. There is no doubt that when the Constitution was adopted its framers considered it an experiment, but they hoped that it would last; they planned for the far future.

There is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that they believed they were simply entering into a new order of things in which the states would have the right, as before, to refuse obedience and to disregard obligations, or from which they could at any time quietly retire when they believed the Union did not suit their purposes. Everything points to the fact that they intended to form a real government and a permanent union; all the solemn debates in the state conventions, all the heated arguments of the Anti-Federalists, all the outcry against the establishment of a consolidated government, are absurd, meaningless if the people felt that they had the legal right to go on just as before and leave the Union when they saw fit. At times the Constitution was spoken of as a compact, but this never meant mere agreement equivalent to a treaty between sovereign states. Compact was the most solemn and serious word in the political vocabulary of the men of that generation; society itself was founded on compact, and government rested on the same foundation. The words with which Massachusetts established her own constitution were almost exactly the same as those with which she established the Constitution of the United States — which, in truth, was also her own: "Acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the Supreme Ruler of the universe in affording the people of the United States, in the course of his providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud or surprise, of entering into an explicit and solemn compact with each other, by assenting to and ratifying a new Constitution."

If one really wishes to know the sentiments of the time, let him read the words of Ellsworth in the Connecticut convention, for no one better than he knew what was done and what the work of the moment meant. "How contrary, then, to republican principles, how humiliating, is our present situation! A single state can rise up, and put a veto upon the most important public measures. We have seen this actually take place. A single state has controlled the general voice of the Union; a minority, a very small minority, has governed us. So far is this from being consistent with republican principles, that it is, in effect, the worst species of monarchy. Hence we see how necessary for the Union is a coercive principle. No man pretends the contrary; we all see and feel this necessity. The only question is, Shall it be a coercion of law or a coercion of arms ? . . . I am for coercion by law — that coercion which acts only upon delinquent individuals."

In the twelve years that followed the Declaration of Independence, the American people had accomplished much. The war was carried to a successful conclusion; the settlements stretching along the Atlantic coast came into the possession of a wide territory extending over the mountains to the Mississippi; state constitutions, laying down broad principles of liberty and justice, were formed on lines of permanence; a new colonial system for the organization and government of the great west was formulated, a system that was to be of incalculable value in the process of occupying the continent and building up a mighty republic; new settlements that showed a capacity for self-government and growth were made in the wilderness beyond the Alleghenies. And, finally, a federal Constitution was formed, having for its purpose the preservation of local rights, the establishment of national authority, the reconciliation of the particular interests, and the general welfare. In solving the problem of imperial organization, America made a momentous contribution to the political knowledge of mankind.

With the adoption of the national Constitution, the first period of the Constitutional history of the United States was closed. A suitable and appropriate national organization was now established. There remained questions to be answered by the coming decades: Was the system suited to the needs of an expanding people? Was the distribution of authority between the national government and the states so nicely adjusted that the complicated political mechanism would stand the strain of local interest and national growth? Would the people who had founded a national government grow so strongly in national spirit and patriotism that there would be a real bond of affection and of mutual goodwill, supplementing and strengthening the formal ties of the law?