The average citizen does not know much about the United States Constitution, and knows even less about constitutional law. This is a lamentable fact. Yet if one desires insight into how the document on which our nation is founded came into being, I would suggest reading and studying James Madison’s Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. If this volume proves unmanageable, then my suggestion is to find a copy of a narrative history based upon Madison’s notes. I have just finished reading one, entitled The Constitutional Convention, by Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship. It is an informative little book and quite easy to read. 

I came away from the book with several notable impressions. The strongest was that the men who attended the Constitutional Convention were all hardly geniuses, or even extraordinary statesmen for that matter. Gunning Bedford, Jr. and Jacob Broom of Delaware are examples. Bedford made the point in debates at the Convention that either the individual states or the national government could be sovereign, but not both. He was apparently unable to wrap his mind around the idea of federalism, where there are sovereigns within a sovereign.  This is, of course, precisely the kind of system the Constitution established. Mr. Broom’s participation was even less spectacular. He was a merchant and surveyor, who contributed only minimally to the Convention by seconding a motion. But to both men’s credit, they remained to the end of the Convention, which lasted almost four months, signing the document that was ultimately crafted there.

As you might guess, there was at least one delegate, William Blount of North Carolina, who was too busy trying to fill his own pockets to spend much time dedicated to fashioning a new nation. He was a liar and cheat, who was an atrocious scoundrel and the subject of the first impeachment trial ever conducted under the new Constitution. Larson and Winship do not mention him in their book, probably because he contributed nothing to the proceedings. He seems to have been cut from the same moral fabric as Aaron Burr, although fortunately not approximating the latter’s political success (Burr was almost elected President in 1800!). 

When reflecting upon the founders, one naturally tends to concentrate upon stellar figures such as Washington, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton. Washington addressed the Convention only once, but his presence there insured its success. He was a heroic figure, whose immense honor and prestige held the at-times tense and chaotic Convention together. Madison was an erudite student of political theory, a mastermind who had prepared diligently for the Convention, sat up front so that he could hear clearly each and every speaker, took meticulous notes, and contributed an enormous wealth of political knowledge and wisdom to the effort. Franklin was the oldest delegate, but possessed notoriety the world over, second only perhaps to Washington himself. Another delegate wrote of Franklin, “He is no speaker, nor does he seem to let politics engage his attention.  He is, however, a most extraordinary man, and tells a story in a style more engaging than anything I ever heard . . .. He . . . possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of twenty-five years of age.” Hamilton was a vain and temperamental intellectual virtuoso, whose strong and unbalanced nationalist fervor turned off his fellow-delegates. Yet his observations and arguments were vibrant both in the Convention and, later, in the ratification effort.

Also, not to be ignored were lesser known, but nonetheless brilliant men. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, as well as a host of others, gave nobly of themselves at the Convention. Not to be overlooked in this category was Luther Martin of Maryland, a gifted attorney, who provoked much thought and provided valuable insight to the Convention, although he was a nasty-tempered, slovenly, disgusting drunk. It is interesting that Mason, Randolph, Gerry, and Martin all refused to sign the majestic document they were instrumental in producing, because they believed it did not adequately protect individual liberties and/or states' rights.  Mason and Martin even worked against its ratification. 

There were two genuinely unsung heroes at the Convention, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. Sherman was a practical, prudent, and levelheaded individual, who was once introduced by Thomas Jefferson as a man who “never said a foolish thing in his life.” This Connecticut delegate keenly understood the art of compromise. His greatest contribution was the “Great (Connecticut) Compromise,” a proposal that membership in the lower house of Congress be based upon proportional representation, while each state in the upper house have the same number of representatives. The Convention, it is safe to say, would have imploded without the assistance of Sherman’s steady hand and of the Great Compromise in particular. 

Pinckney, on the contrary, who was a bubbling fountain of ideas, supplied the terms “President,” “House,” and “Senate.” He advanced many other winning suggestions as well, such as (1) that the legislature be bicameral; (2) that it have the power to coin money, call up the militia, and establish post offices; (4) that the presidency consist of a vigorous, single-person executive; (5) that he direct the military as its commander-in-chief; (6) that he present an annual State of the Union address; and (7) that the judiciary be appointed. This South Carolinian did not receive a full and positive review in Madison’s notes on the Convention, probably because the two men did not have the best personal relationship and even later became political adversaries, running against each other for the presidency. 

It amazes me that all these eighteenth century framers, who were in numerous respects a diverse group, managed to overcome their many differences and to work together for months to produce a magnificent document of liberty and limited government. Their deliberations were, for the most part, conversationally civil, intellectually candid and insightful, and unmistakably calculated to American interests. Compare their principled and dignified qualities to what we currently see in government – a chief executive who unilaterally amends a statute as he pleases, a Congress that is polarized, gridlocked, uncivil, and self-serving, and an unelected and unaccountable judiciary that peckishly legislates on important cultural issues.  How far we have wandered from the path our forefathers blazed for us!

On the last day of the Convention, the 81-year old Benjamin Franklin arose to his feet and spoke to the Convention.  He stated that the Constitution was not entirely to his liking, but that he was supporting it and would continue to do so. He predicted, in a way that now sends cold shivers up the spine, that the government created by the document “is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” Has our nation reached the point that old Ben described? You be the judge.

The founders exulted in free elections to cure tyranny.  Perhaps we also can place some hope in those, which will occur in 2014 and 2016, provided that the American people become politically engaged and wake up.

March 29, 2014