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A Republic Established on Arguments and Interests
Why I Think The Constitution Is Still Worthy of Signing


Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2003

Ever since historian Charles Beard advanced his "economic" interpretation of the Constitution -- focusing on its protection of property and preservation of financial advantage -- scholars have focused on the Framers' motives.

Were they democrats or aristocrats? Were they motivated by patriotism or greed? Were they enlightened statesmen or were they racists, chauvinists, and xenophobes?

Meanwhile, a parallel debate about the Constitution itself has also raged -- and is continuing. Should we remain proud of it -- even though it is hardly completely democratic, and is certainly flawed, most grievously by its acceptance of slavery? Should we be concerned about how difficult it is to amend?

In both these debates, I have reached a reassuring answer. I believe the Framers' motives were good ones. And when it comes to the document itself, I believe that a modern American could, if asked, still sign it with pride.

The Framers and Their Motives: Interest Entered In, But Reason Reigned

To discern the Framers' motives, it's necessary, of course, to look at the debate at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, which took place between May 25 and September 17 of that year. What emerges from all the sources concerning the Convention debates is that the Framers were motivated by a remarkable blend of reason and interest. Reason often dominated. Delegates took arguments seriously. They met argument with argument. They attempted to persuade.

In writing an encyclopedia on the Convention, I have found many secondary accounts of the Convention's event, but I have also confirmed that there is no substitute for the notes that Virginia's James Madison took -- and that historian Max Farrand later compiled with other notes and records of the Convention.

Madison's notes were a labor of faith and perseverance (one that would have been of little more than antiquarian interest had "We the people" not ratified the Constitution). Indeed, he confided in Governor Randolph that "the confinement to which his attendance in Convention subjected him, almost killed him; but that having undertaken the task, he was determined to accomplish it."

Here is how Madison described his careful work: "I chose a seat in front of the presiding member, with the other members, on my right and left hand. In this favorable position of hearing all that passed, I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members; and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention, I was enabled to write out my daily notes during the session or within a few finishing days after its close."

In 1986 a Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress symposium concluded that Madison averaged writing about 548 words of a possible 8,400 words spoken in an hour. By this reckoning, he would have recorded less than ten percent of the proceedings. Madison, however, did not seek to record speeches verbatim but to preserve arguments . (For instance, Madison might summarize a prolix speech for annual elections by saying that it lead to greater electoral accountability, and a speech for elections every four-years by saying that this lead to greater stability.) He did so accurately -- as we can tell since other accounts correlate with his, showing the same people making the same kind of arguments on the same day.

Madison's notes record logical progression within individual speeches at the Convention, and through days and weeks of compromises -- all leading toward a more perfect Union. Thus, they represent the triumph of reason, and ought only to make us admire the Framers more greatly.

Of course, in addition to employing arguments, delegates also fought tenaciously on behalf of state and regional interests. But these interests were as transparent to their contemporaries as they are to us. Delegates knew who was representing large states, slave states, states with seaports, and states with staple products to export, and so on and so forth. They also knew the relative financial worth of their colleagues -- and thus were able to assess whether a delegate's arguments were merely designed to serve his own pocketbook, or to serve the greater good.

An exchange between Virginia's George Mason and Connecticut's Oliver Ellsworth on August 22 indicates that delegates were on guard against self-interest and hypocrisy. In condemning the slave trade and the wider institution of slavery, Mason, who himself owned many slaves, asserted that "every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant." Ellsworth, who owned no slaves, replied that "As he had never owned a slave [he] could not judge of the effects of slavery on character," but he also suggested that if Mason were sincere, perhaps all slaves should be freed immediately. Plainly, Mason's hypocrisy was not lost on Ellsworth.

The Document Itself: Flawed, But Still Worth Signing

While the delegates, then, were admirable in putting reason above interest, what of the Constitution itself? There, interests sometimes trumped arguments -- all in service of the ultimate goal of ratification.

For example, the Convention accepted the provision for equal state representation in the Senate as the price of admission demanded by the smaller states. This provision distanced the American system from a pure democracy. But it also made ratification possible.

Most delegates opposed allowing the importation of slaves for another twenty years. But the southernmost states would not sign without such a provision.

Delegates who preferred annual elections in the House settled for elections of two years. Delegates who preferred six-year terms for the president settled on four-year terms.

And so it went. No one left with everything he wanted. Some left with hardly anything. But even before the term Anti-federalist was coined, Anti-federalist ideals had not only been given a hearing but had often been incorporated within the document.

As Benjamin Franklin argued in an extraordinary speech on the final day, only men overconfident in their own judgment could be certain that the Constitution was not an improvement over the existing Articles of Confederation. Delegates knew that the Articles were deeply flawed. The Constitution offered hope for the future, and enough men seized on this hope to take the risk of re-founding the nation.

Is the Amendment Process Too Difficult?

Fortunately, many of these early bargains -- including that which accepted the evil of slavery -- have been rightly reversed. Has the Document adopted to changing times? The Bill of Rights, the post-Civil War amendments, and the Progressive Era amendments testify that it has. Has the Constitution preserved the "blessings of liberty" for posterity? Immigrants continue to seek refuge here.

The formal amending process remains one of the most important parts of the Constitution. It provides for two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress to propose and three-fourths of the states to ratify amendments. This mechanism acknowledges constitutional imperfection and proves for future progress.

Is the document still worthy of endorsement? Emphatically yes! Citizens who can balance their own heartfelt beliefs and interests against those of others, and who can accept something short of perfection, can still in good faith join the delegates of 1787 who persevered toward an enduring vision of the common good.

John R. Vile is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of numerous books including the Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments and Amending Issues, 1789-2002, A Companion to the U.S. Constitution and Its Amendments, Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia, Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia, and others. He is currently working on an encyclopedia of the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 and co-editing a set of volumes on civil liberties in America.

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