Much is in the American news today regarding the American Constitution. Republicans in general, and Tea-partiers in particular, take pride in citing the Constitution as the “Bible” of American governance. Yet, with regard to details on the Committee who were the Framers of the Constitution, it seems that little is known by most people.
They should be forgiven for this. After all, the American people have had the luxury of economic complacency for generations, and most are only beginning to scratch their heads and look for some real answers to what is occurring in their country. Those who are now questioning what their Constitution actually says are on the right track and, in time, hopefully a broader understanding will develop in Americans as to who the Constitution's authors were and what they were thinking when they wrote it.
From the outset, the de-facto leaders of the newly-created country made a wise decision with regard to their Constitution: keep it simple. Although there were 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention (sent from twelve of the thirteen states), a committee was chosen (made up of delegates and non-delegates alike) that was as small as it could be, while still taking in the perspectives that were most commonly supported at that time.
Designers of the Constitution
Morris was chosen to head the committee. Nearly all the others were selected primarily because they had authored pamphlets or newspaper articles that had served as the locus for the revolution itself. Madison's “Virginia Plan” was employed as a starting point. Dickinson, the “Penman of the Revolution” contributed his “Fabius Letters.” Paine's “Common Sense” and the writings of Adams and Jefferson each were major contributions, particularly Jefferson's “Declaration of Independence.” Interestingly, the latter three men did not attend the meetings in spite of the fact that they were considered pivotal, as they were in Europe for the duration. Their writings therefore spoke for them.
Morris consolidated the primary documents and the committee's various resolutions and decisions into a cohesive document. He was, therefore, technically the “author” of the document, but the creation of the resolutions was very much a group effort. The actual piecing together was done in the office of Jacob Shallus, assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania State Assembly, where the committee's meetings were held.
As can be seen, the committee was made up primarily of Virginians and Pennsylvanians; however, the committee was a balance between rural planters and urban professionals. Whilst all were avowed Americans, both Paine and Wilson had been born in the UK.
Today, George Wythe is a nearly forgotten figure. However, he had been responsible for teaching Law to young Thomas Jefferson. (Jefferson also learned basic principles of ethics and good governance from Wythe.) At the time of the writing of the Constitution, he was an elder statesman who was likely the most highly respected of all the committee members.
Development of the Constitution
As simple as the Constitution is, its first draft was not universally accepted by all the delegates, and much wrangling ensued. Some delegates even dropped out of the discussions.
A particular bone of contention was Jefferson's firm opinion that “all men are created equal”, as he stated in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, Madison, Wythe and Morris all argued in favour of banning slavery in the Constitution. Except for Morris, they all owned slaves; however, they believed that the Constitution was the point at which to end slavery. They felt that, if this could not be agreed, the question might never be resolved.
However, twenty five of the fifty-five delegates owned slaves, and it became clear that a Constitution that banned slavery would not be accepted by all the states. In the end, they were voted down, and, in the final draft, the word, “slave” does not appear. The continuance of slavery was assured for another 75 years. (Jefferson has, in modern times, been roundly criticised for having been a slave owner; however, he rightly stated that, unless all slave-owners gave up their slaves at the same time, those who did not own them could not compete in the marketplace, which would render their protest against slavery meaningless.)
Differences aside, the ten men who created the American Constitution were true visionaries, and it stands today, 225 years later, as possibly the greatest primary governing document that has ever been written.
Deterioration of the Constitution
So, does any of this matter today?
If it does, it is in the objectives of the framers. Generally, those who were at the centre of politics in America following the revolution were a very mixed lot. Some were eager to shape the new country as something quite similar to the UK, only with a president instead of a king. Others fought hard against this, hoping to create a true republic. Interestingly, most of those who were chosen for the committee were of the latter persuasion, and that is reflected in the wording of the constitution. It reads far more like a Democratic Republican document than a Federalist one.
The framers, generally speaking, did not see themselves as career politicians. They wanted to create a framework by which the new country could be run, keep it simple so that it was difficult to reinterpret, and then get on with their lives. However, as much as these men deserve praise for what they did, their view was by no means the only one extant. Already in the wings were those who were hoping to become career politicians, and, as early as 1825, the US had elected its first president who was a career politician.
Additionally, as early as Washington's presidency, some members of the cabinet were squabbling as to how to tax and control the populace, and even how to circumvent the Constitution to achieve their goals.
As much as we tend to praise the great “founding fathers,” there were rats in the feed bin from the beginning. It was by no means a magical era in which all men were high-minded in their goals. Then, as now, Jefferson's words were apt:
“Even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
To my mind, the key to Jefferson's statement is the words, “by slow operations.” Today, we might use the phrase, “boiling a frog,” but the meaning is the same. Governments made up of career politicians invariably end up separating the populace from their pre-existing rights and their money.
To date, no country in history has ever stopped this trend from occurring. The best anyone has ever done is to jam on the brakes and slow the monster down a bit – to delay the deterioration as much as possible.
The one great opportunity to escape this syndrome that citizens of the world have today is rapid transport. Never has it been so easy for people to vote with their feet. For Americans, this may mean leaving a place where there was once a Great Idea that has now all but disappeared. If there is a value in reviewing how that idea came to pass, it is that today's people may take that idea with them as an ideal to look for elsewhere.
The good news is that the world is far from being uniform. As some countries are headed downhill, others are headed uphill. Just as in 1787 America, people have a choice.
Editor’s Note: Things can change quickly. New options emerge, while others disappear. This is why it's so important to have the most up-to-date and accurate information possible. That's where International Man comes in. Be sure to get the free IM Communiqué to keep up with the latest on the best international diversification opportunities.