JAMES M. BECK
HONORARY BENCHER OF GRAY'S INN
The Constitution of the United States
A brief Study of the Genesis, Formulation and Political Philosophy of the Constitution of the United States
By James M. Beck, LL.D.
Solicitor-General of the United States, Honorary Bencher of Gray's Inn
With a Preface by The Earl of Balfour
"Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the Law, happy is he."—Proverbs xxix. 18
"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."—Proverbs xxii. 28
TO THE HON. HARRY M. DAUGHERTY
ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES
A TRUE AND LOYAL FRIEND, A FAIR AND CHIVALROUS FOE
With whom it is the author's great privilege to collaborate as Solicitor-General in defending and vindicating in the Supreme Court of the United States the principles and mandates of its Constitution
July 14 1922
Preface by the Earl of Balfour
I have been greatly honoured by your invitation to take the chair on this interesting occasion. It gives me special pleasure to be able to introduce to this distinguished audience my friend, Mr. Beck, Solicitor-General of the United States. It is a great and responsible office; but long before he held it he was known to the English public and to English readers as the author who, perhaps more than any other writer in our language, contributed a statement of the Allied case in the Great War which produced effects far beyond the country in which it was written or the public to which it was first addressed. Mr. Beck approached that great theme in the spirit of a great judge; he marshalled his arguments with the skill of a great advocate, and the combination of these qualities—qualities, highly appreciated everywhere, but nowhere more than in this Hall and among a Gray's Inn audience—has given an epoch-making character to his work. To-day he comes before us in a different character. He is neither judge nor advocate, but historian: and he offers to guide us through one of the most interesting and important enterprises in which our common race has ever been engaged.
The framers of the American Constitution were faced with an entirely new problem, so far, at all events, as the English-speaking world was concerned; and though they founded their doctrines upon the English traditions of law and liberty, they had to deal with circumstances which none of their British progenitors had to face, and they showed a masterly spirit in adapting the ideas of which they were the heirs to a new country and new conditions. The result is one of the greatest pieces of constructive statesmanship ever accomplished. We, who belong to the British Empire, are at this moment engaged, under very different circumstances, in welding slowly and gradually the scattered fragments of the British Empire into an organic whole, which must, from the very nature of its geographical situation, have a Constitution as different from that of the British Isles, as the Constitution of the British Isles is different from that of the American States. But all three spring from one root; all three are carried out by men of like political ideals; all three are destined to promote the cause of ordered liberty throughout the world. In the meanwhile we on this side of the Atlantic cannot do better than study, under the most favourable and fortunate conditions, the story of the great constitutional adventure which has given us the United States of America.
[Footnote 1: [Address of the Earl of Balfour as Chairman on the occasion of the delivery on June 13, 1922, in Gray's Inn of the first of the lectures herein reprinted.]]
Introduction by Sir John Simon, K.C.
I have the privilege and the honour of adding a few words to express our thanks to the Solicitor-General of the United States for this memorable course of lectures. They are memorable alike for their subject and their form; alike for the place in which we are met and for the man who has so generously given of his time and learning for our instruction. Mr. Beck is always a welcome visitor to our shores, and nowhere is he more welcome than in these ancient Inns of Court which are the home and source of law for Americans and Englishmen alike. In contemplating the edifice reared by the Fathers of the American Constitution we take pride in remembering that it was built upon British foundations by men, many of whom were trained in the English Courts; and when Mr. Beck lectures on this subject to us, our interest and our sympathy are redoubled by the thought that whatever differences there may be between the Old World and the New, citizens of the United States and ourselves are the Sons of a Common Mother and jointly inherit the treasure of the Common Law. And we cannot part with Mr. Beck on this occasion without a personal word. Plato records a saying of Socrates that the dog is a true philosopher because philosophy is love of knowledge, and a dog, while growling at strangers, always welcomes the friends that he knows. And the British public often greets its visitors with a touch of this canine philosophy. We regard Mr. Beck, not as a casual visitor, but as a firm friend to whom we owe much; he has been here again and again and we hope will often repeat his visits, and Englishmen will never forget how, at a crisis in our fate, Mr. James Beck profoundly influenced the judgment of the neutral world and vindicated, by his masterly and sympathetic argument, the justice of our cause.
[Footnote 2: Address of Sir John Simon on the conclusion, on June 19,1922, of the three lectures herein printed.]
This book is a result of three lectures, which were delivered in the Hall of Gray's Inn, London, on June 13, 15, and 19, 1922, respectively, under the auspices and on the invitation of the University of London. The invitation originated with the University of Manchester, which, through its then Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Ramsay Muir, two years ago graciously invited me to visit Manchester and explain American political institutions to the undergraduates. Subsequently I was greatly honoured when the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh and London joined in the invitation.
Unfortunately for me—for I greatly valued the privilege of explaining the institutions of my country to the undergraduates of these great Universities—my political duties made it impossible for me to visit England prior to June 1, about which time the Supreme Court of the United States, in which my official duties largely preoccupy my time, adjourns for the summer. Any dates after June 1 were inconvenient to the first three Universities, but it was my good fortune that the University of London was able to carry out the plan, and that it had the cordial co-operation of that venerable Inn of Court, Gray's Inn, one of the "noblest nurseries of legal training."
Thus I was privileged to address at once an academic and a professional audience.
I came to England for this purpose as a labour of love. I had no anticipation of success, for I feared that the interest in the subject-matter of my lectures would be very slight.
My surprise and gratification increased on the occasion of each lecture, as the audiences grew in numbers and distinction. Many leading jurists and statesmen took more than a mere complimentary interest, and some of them, although pressed with social and public duties, honoured me with their attendance at all three lectures. How can I adequately express my appreciation of the great honour thus done me by the Earl of Balfour, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Justice Atkin, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, and many other leaders in academic and legal circles—not to forget the Chief Justice of the United States, who paid me the great compliment of attending the last lecture. To one and nil of my auditors, my heartfelt thanks!
I also must not fail to acknowledge the generous space given in the British Press to these lectures, and the even more generous allusions to them in the editorial columns. An especial acknowledgment is due to Viscount Burnham and The Daily Telegraph for their generous interest in this book. The good cause of Anglo-American friendship has no better friend than Lord Burnham.
This experience has convinced me that now, more than ever before, there is in England a deep interest in American institutions and their history. This is as it should be, for—for better or worse—England and America will play together a great part in the future history of the world. In double harness they are destined to pull the heavy load of the world's problems. Therefore these "yoke-fellows in equity" must know each other better, and, what is more, pull together.
As I was revising the proofs of these lectures in beautiful Chamonix, the prospectus of the Scottish-American Association reached me, in which its Honorary Secretary and my good friend, Dr. Charles Sarolea, took occasion to make the following suggestion to his British compatriots:
"To remove those causes of estrangement, to avoid a fateful catastrophe, in other words, to bring about a cordial understanding with America, the first condition must be an understanding of America. Such an understanding, or even the atmosphere in which such an understanding may grow, has still to be created. It is indeed passing strange that in these days of cheap books and free education, America should be almost a 'terra incognita,' that we should know next to nothing of American history, of the American Constitution, of American practical politics, of the American mentality. We scarcely read American newspapers or American books. Even such masters of classical prose as Francis Parkman, perhaps the greatest historian who has used the English language as his vehicle, are almost unknown to the average reader. Our students do not visit American universities as they used before the War to visit German universities. The consequence is that again and again we are running the risk of perpetrating the most grotesque errors of judgment, of committing the most serious political blunders, in defiance of American public opinion."
The success of my Gray's Inn lectures convinces me that Dr. Sarolea underestimates the interest in America and its history in England. However, the episode, which is treated in these lectures, is, as he says, "terra incognita" not only in England, but even in the United States. It is amazing how little is known in America of the facts given in my second lecture. The American student, after rejoicing in the victory at Yorktown and the end of the War of Independence, generally skips about eight years to 1789, mid his interest in the history of his own country recommences with the inauguration of President Washington.
Students of history in both countries thus miss one of the most interesting and instructive chapters of American history, and indeed of any history.
I have ventured to add to my Gray's Inn lectures another address, which I delivered as the "annual address" at the session of the American Bar Association in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 31, 1921. I do so, because it has a direct bearing on the decay of the spirit of constitutionalism both in America and elsewhere. It discusses a great malaise of our age, for which, I fear, no written Constitution, however wise, is an adequate remedy. It was published in condensed form in the issue of the Fortnightly for October, 1921, and an acknowledgment is due to its courteous editor for permission to republish it.
I have forborne in these lectures to make more than a passing reference to the League of Nations and the great Conference which framed it, tempting as the obvious analogy was. The reader who studies the appendices will see that the Covenant of the League more nearly resembles the Articles of Confederation than the Constitution of 1787.
I only mention the subject to suggest that the reader of these lectures will better understand why the American people take the written obligations of the League so seriously and literally. We have been trained for nearly a century and a half to measure the validity and obligations of laws and executive acts in Courts of Justice and to apply the plain import of the Constitution. Our constant inquiry is, "Is it so nominated" in that compact? In Europe, and especially England, constitutionalism is largely a spirit of great objectives and ideals.
Therefore, while in these nations the literal obligations of Articles X, XI, XV, and XVI of the Covenant of the League are not taken rigidly, we in America, pursuant to our life-long habit of constitutionalism, interpret these clauses as we do those of our Constitution, and we ask ourselves, Are we ready to promise to do, that which these Articles literally import, join, for example, in a commercial, social and even military war against any nation that is deemed an aggressor, however remote the cause of the war may be to us? Are we prepared to say that in the event of a war or threatened danger of war, the Supreme Council of the League may take any action it deems wise and effectual to maintain peace? This is a very serious committal. Other nations may not take it so literally, but with our life-long adherence to a written Constitution as a solemn contractual obligation, we do.
This is said in no spirit of hostility to the League, but only to explain the American point of view. Since I delivered these lectures, I took a short trip to the Continent, and while sojourning in Geneva, made a visit to the offices of the League. All I there saw greatly interested me, and I could have nothing but a feeling of admiration for the effective and useful administrative work which the League is doing.
The men who framed the Covenant of the League tried to do, under more difficult, but not dissimilar, conditions, what the framers of the American Constitution did in 1787. In both cases the aim was high, the great purpose meritorious. Those Americans who, for the reasons stated, are not in sympathy with the structural form and political objectives of the League, are not lacking in sympathy for its admirable administrative work in co-ordinating the activities of civilized nations for the common good. In any study of a World Constitution, the example of those who framed the American Constitution can be studied with profit.
JAMES M. BECK.
July 14, 1922.
PREFACE BY THE EARL OF BALFOUR
INTRODUCTION BY SIR JOHN SIMON
FIRST LECTURE: THE GENESIS OF THE CONSTITUTION
SECOND LECTURE: THE FORMULATION OF THE CONSTITUTION
THIRD LECTURE: THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF THE CONSTITUTION
THE REVOLT AGAINST AUTHORITY
I. The Genesis of the Constitution of the United States
I trust I need not offer this audience, gathered in the noble hall of this historic Inn—of "old Purpulei, Britain's ornament"—any apology for challenging its attention in this and two succeeding addresses to the genesis, formulation, and the fundamental political philosophy of the Constitution of the United States. The occasion gives me peculiar satisfaction, not only in the opportunity to thank my fellow Benchers of the Inn for their graciousness in granting the use of this noble Hall for this purpose, but also because the delivery of these addresses now enables me to be, for the moment, in fact as in honorary title a Bencher, or Reader, of this time-honoured society.
If I needed any justification for addresses, which I was graciously invited to deliver under the auspices of the University of London, an honour which I also gratefully acknowledge, it would lie in the fact that we are to consider one of the supremely great achievements of the English-speaking race. It is in that aspect that I shall treat my theme; for, as a philosophical or juristic discussion of the American Constitution, my addresses will be neither as "deep as a well, nor as wide as a church door."
My auditors will bear in mind that I must limit each address to the duration of an hour, and that I cannot go deeply or exhaustively into a subject that has challenged the admiring comment and profound consideration of the intellectual world for nearly a century and a half.
If England and America are to act together in the coming time—and the destinies of the world are, to a very large extent, in their keeping, then they must know each other better, and, to this end, they must take a greater interest in each other's history and political institutions. My principal purpose in these lectures is to deepen the interest of this great nation in one of the very greatest and far-reaching achievements of our common race.
Americans have never lacked interest in English history; for however broad the stream of our national life, how could we ignore its chief source?
But is there in England an equal interest in the history of America, whose origin and development constitute one of the most dramatic and significant dramas ever played upon the stage of this "wide and universal theatre of man"? It is true that Thackeray, in his Virginians, gave us in fiction the finest picture of our colonial life, and the late and deeply lamented Lord Bryce wrote one of the best commentaries upon our institutions in The American Commonwealth. In more recent years two of the most moving portraits of our Hamilton and Lincoln are due to your Mr. Oliver and Lord Charnwood. We gratefully recognize this; and yet, how many educated Englishmen have studied that little known chapter of our history, which gave to the progress of mankind a contribution to political science which your Gladstone praised as the greatest "ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man"? If "peace hath her victories no less renown'd than war," this achievement may well justify your study and awaken your admiration; for, as I have already said and cannot too strongly emphasize, it was the work of the English-speaking race, of men who, shortly before they entered upon this great work of constructive statecraft, were citizens of your Empire. The conditions of colonial development had profoundly stimulated in these English pioneers the sense and genius for constitutionalism.
In his speech on Conciliation with America of March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke showed his characteristically philosophic comprehension of this powerful constitutional conscience of the then American subjects of the Empire. After stating that in no other country in the world was law so generally studied, and referring to the fact that as many copies of Blackstone's Commentaries had been sold in America as in England, he added:
"This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries the people, more simple and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle."
Moreover, these hardy pioneers were the privileged heirs of the great political traditions of England. While the Constitution of the United States was very much more than an adaptation of the British Constitution, yet its underlying spirit was that of the English speaking race and the Common Law. Behind the framers of the Constitution, as they entered upon their momentous task, were the mighty shades of Simon de Montfort, Coke, Sandys, Bacon, Eliot, Hampden, Lilburne, Milton, Shaftesbury and Locke. Could there be a better illustration of Sir Frederick Pollock's noble tribute to the genius of the common law:
"Remember that Our Lady, the Common Law, is not a task-mistress, but a bountiful sovereign, whose service is freedom. The destinies of the English-speaking world are bound up with her fortunes and migrations and its conquests are justified by her works"?
Another reason makes the consideration of the subject not only interesting but opportune. "These are the times that try men's souls." It is a time of sifting, when men of all nations in civilization in these critical days are again testing the value even of those political institutions which have the sanction of the past. Society is in a state of flux. Everywhere the foundations of governmental structures seem to be settling—let us hope and pray upon a surer foundation—and when the seismic convulsion of the world war is taken into account, it is not surprising that this is so. While the storm is not yet past and the waves have not wholly subsided, it is natural that everywhere thoughtful men as true mariners are taking their reckonings to know where they are and whether the frail bark of human institutions is still sufficiently seaworthy to keep afloat.
Moreover, the patent evidences of weakness in the international organization that we call civilization, the imperative need of ending the spirit of moral anarchy, and the urgent necessity of rebuilding the shattered ruins of the social edifice on surer foundations by the integration of the nations, if possible, into some new form of world organization, gives peculiar interest in these terrible days to the manner in which the American people solved a similar problem more than a century ago.
Then, as now, a world war had ended. Then, as now, half the world was prostrated by the wounds of fratricidal strife. As Washington said: "The whole world was in an uproar," and he added that the task "was to steer safely between Scylla and Charybdis." The problem, then as now, was not only to make "the world safe for democracy," but to make democracy, for which there is no alternative, safe for the world. The thirteen colonies in 1787, while small and relatively unimportant, were, however, a little world in themselves, and, relatively to their numbers and resources, this problem, which they confronted and solved, differed in degree but not in kind from that which now confronts civilization. Impoverished in resources, exhausted by the loss of the flower of their youth, demoralized by the reaction from feverish strife, the forces of disintegration had set in in the United States between 1783 and 1787. Law and order had almost perished and the provisional government had been reduced to impotence. A few wise and noble spirits, true Faithfuls and Great Hearts, led a despondent people out of the Slough of Despond till their feet were again on firm ground and their faces turned towards the Delectable Mountains of peace, justice, and liberty. Let it be emphasized that they did this, not by seeking more power, but by imposing restraints upon themselves. That spirit of self-restraint is the essence of the American Constitution.
So enduring was their achievement that to-day the Constitution of the United States is the oldest comprehensive written form of government now existing in the world. Few, if any, forms of government have better withstood the mad spirit of innovation, or more effectively proved their merit by the "arduous greatness of things done."
For this reason, as the nations of the world are now trying in a cosmic form and under similar conditions to do that which the founders of the American Republic in 1787 did in a microcosmic form, a short narration of that earlier achievement may not be unprofitable in this day and generation, when we are blindly groping towards some common basis for international co-ordination.
One of England's greatest Prime Ministers, William Pitt, shortly after the adoption of the Constitution, prophetically said that it would be the admiration of the future ages and the pattern for future constitution building. Time has verified his prediction, for constitution making has been, since the American Constitution was adopted, a continuous industry. The American Constitution has been the classic model for the federated State. Lieber estimated that three hundred and fifty constitutions were made in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century, and, in the constituent States of the American Union, one hundred and three new Constitutions were promulgated in the first century of the United States.
"Have you a copy of the French Constitution?" was asked of a bookseller during the second French Empire, and the characteristically witty Gallic reply was: "We do not deal in periodical literature."
Constitutions, as governmental panaceas, have come and gone; but it can be said of the American Constitution, paraphrasing the noble tribute of Dr. Johnson to the immortal fame of Shakespeare, that the stream of time, which has washed away the dissoluble fabric of many other paper constitutions has left almost untouched its adamantine strength. Excepting the first ten amendments, which were virtually a part of the original charter, only nine others have been adopted in more than one hundred and thirty years.
A constitution, while primarily for the distribution of governmental powers, is, in its last analysis, a formal expression of adherence to that which in modern times has been called the higher law, and which in ancient times was called natural law. The jurisprudence of every nation has, with more or less clearness, recognized the existence of certain primal and fundamental laws which are superior to the laws, statutes, or conventions of living generations. The original use of the term was to import the superiority of the Imperial edict to the laws of the Comitia. All nations have recognized this higher law to a greater or less extent. If we turn to the writings of the most intellectual race in ancient time and possibly in recorded history—the Greeks—we shall see the higher law vindicated with incomparable power in the moral philosophy of its three greatest dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. How was it better expressed than by Antigone when she was asked whether she had transgressed the laws of the state and replied:
"Yes, for that law was not from Zeus, nor did Justice, dweller with the gods below, establish it among men; nor deemed I that thy decree—mere mortal that thou art—could override those unwritten and unfailing mandates, which are not of to-day or yesterday, but ever live and no one knows their birthtide."
Five centuries later the greatest of the Roman lawyers and orators, Cicero, spoke in the same terms of a higher law, "which was never written and which we are never taught, which we never team by reading, but which was drawn by nature herself."
The Roman jurists gave it express recognition. They always recognized the distinction between jus civile, or the law of the State, and the jus naturale, or the law of Nature. They nobly conceived that human society was a single unit and that it was governed by a law that was both antecedent and paramount to the law of Rome. Thus, the idea of a higher law transcending the power of a living generation, and therefore eternal as justice itself—became lodged in our system of jurisprudence. Nor was the Common Law wanting in a recognition of a higher law that would curb the power of King or Parliament, for its earlier masters, including four Chief Justices (Coke, Hobart, Holt, and Popham), supported the doctrine, as laid down by Coke, that the judiciary had the power to nullify a law if it were "against common right and reason."—(Bonham's Case, 8 Coke Reports, 114.)
This view as to the limitation of government and the denial of its omnipotence was powerfully accentuated in America by the very conditions of its colonization. The good yeomen of England who journeyed to America went in the spirit of the noble and intrepid Kent, when, turning his back upon King Lear's temporary injustice, he said that he would "shape his old course in a country new." Was it strange that the early colonists, as they braved the hardships and perils of a dangerous voyage, only to be confronted in the wilderness by disease, famine and massacre, should fall back for their own government upon these primal verities of human society, and claim not only their inherited rights as Englishmen, but also the peculiar privileges of pioneers in an unconquered wilderness?
This spirit of constitutionalism in America, which culminated in the Constitution of the United States, had its institutional origin in the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth. That wonderful age, which gave to the world not only Shakespeare, Spenser and Jonson, but also Drake, Frobisher and Raleigh, was the Anglo-Saxon reaction to the Renaissance. The spirit of man had a new birth and was breaking away from the too rigid bonds of ancient custom and authority.
Among the notable, but little known, leaders of that time was Sir Edwin Sandys, the leading spirit of the London (or Virginia) company. He was a Liberal when to be such was an "extra hazardous risk." He was the son of a Liberal, for his father, a great prelate, had been sent to the Tower for preaching in defence of Lady Jane Grey. The son, Sir Edwin, was the foe of monopolies, and in the same Parliament that impeached the great genius of this Inn, Francis Bacon, Sandys advocated the then novel proposition that accused prisoners should have the right to be represented by counsel, to which the strange objection was made that it would subvert the administration of justice. As early as 1613, he had boldly declared in Parliament that even the King's authority rested upon the clear understanding that there were reciprocal conditions which neither ruler nor subject could violate with impunity. He might not too fancifully be called the "Father of American Constitutionalism," for he caused a constitution—possibly the first time that that word was ever applied to a comprehensive scheme of government—to be drafted for the little colony of Virginia in 1609 and amplified in 1612. Speaking in this venerable Hall, whose very walls eloquently remind us of the mighty genius of Francis Bacon, it is interesting to recall that these two charters of government, which were the beginning of Constitutionalism in America and therefore the germ of the Constitution of the United States, were put in legal form for royal approval by Lord Bacon himself. Thus the immortal Treasurer of this Inn is directly linked with the development of Constitutional freedom in America.
Bacon became a member of the council for the Virginia Company in 1609. His deep interest in it is attested in the dedication to him by William Strachey in 1618 of the latter's Historie of Travaile into Virginia Brittania.
In his speech in the House of Commons on January 30, 1621, Bacon saw a vision of the future and predicted the growth of America, when he said:
"This kingdom now first in His Majesty's Times hath gotten a lot or portion in the New World by the plantation of Virginia and the Summer Islands. And certainly it is with the kingdoms on earth as it is in the kingdom of heaven, sometimes a grain of mustard seed proves a great tree."
Truly the mustard seed of Virginia did become a great tree in the American Commonwealth.
One of Bacon's nephews, also of the Inns of Court, Nathaniel Bacon, became the first Liberal leader in the Colonies, and led the first revolt against colonial misrule. He was probably of Gray's Inn, for it is difficult to imagine a Bacon studying in any Inn than the one to which the great Bacon had given so much loving care.
Due to these charters, on July 30, 1619, the little remnant of colonists whom disease and famine had left untouched were summoned to meet in the church at Jamestown to form the first parliamentary assembly in America, the first-born of the fruitful Mother of Parliaments. It was due to Sandys not only that the first permanent English settlement in the Western World was planted at Jamestown in 1607, but that a later group of "adventurers"—for such they called themselves—destined to be more famous, were driven by chance of wind and wave to land on the coast of Massachusetts. Thus was established, not only the beginning of England's colonial Empire—still one of the most beneficent forces in the world—but also the principle of local self-government, which, in the Western World, was destined to develop the American Commonwealth. The compact, signed in the cabin of the Mayflower, while not in strictness a constitution, like the Virginia Charter, was yet destined to be a landmark of history.
Sandys suffered for his convictions, for the party of reaction convinced King James that Virginia was a nest of sedition, and the arbitrary ruler, in the reorganization of the London company, gave a pointed admonition by saying: "Choose the devil, if you will, but not Sir Edwin Sandys." In 1621 he was committed to the Tower and only released after the House of Commons had made a vigorous protest against his incarceration. His successor as treasurer of the London company was Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, and it is not a fanciful conjecture to assume that, when the news of the disaster which befell one of the fleets of the London Company on the Island of Bermuda reached England, it inspired Shakespeare to write his incomparable sea idyl, The Tempest. If so, this lovely drama was Shakespeare's unconscious apostrophe to America, for in Ariel—seeking to be free—can be symbolized her awakening spirit, while Prospero, with his thaumaturgic achievements, suggests a constructive genius, which in a little more than a century has made one of the least of the nations to-day one of the greatest.
Bacon, Sandys, Southampton and the Liberal leaders of the House of Commons had implanted in the ideas of the colonists the spirit of constitutionalism, which was destined to influence profoundly the whole development of the American colonies, and finally to culminate in the Constitution of the United States.
The later struggle in the Long Parliament, the fall of Charles I, and more especially the deposition of James II, the accession of William of Orange, and the substitution for the Stuart claim of divine right that of the supremacy of the people in Parliament, naturally had their reaction in the Western World in intensifying the spirit of constitutionalism in the growing American Commonwealth.
The colonial history was therefore increasingly marked by a spirit of individualism, a natural partiality for local rule, and a tenacious adherence to their special privileges, whether granted to Crown colonies, like New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia, or proprietary governments, like Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, or charter governments, such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In the three colonies last named formal corporate charters were granted by the Crown, which in themselves were constitutions in embryo, and the colonists thus acquired written rights as to the government of their internal affairs, upon the maintenance of which they jealously insisted. Thus arose the spirit in America, which treated constitutional rights, not so much as special privileges granted by plenary Sovereignty, but as contractual obligations which could be enforced in the Courts against the Sovereign.
All this developed in the colonists a powerful sense of constitutional morality, and its pertinency to my present theme lies in the fact that when each of the thirteen colonies became, at the conclusion of the War of Independence, a separate and independent nation, they were more concerned, in establishing a central government, to limit its authority and to maintain local self-government than they were to give to the new-born nation the powers which it needed. They carried their constitutionalism to extremes, which nearly made a strong and efficient central government an impossibility.
Nothing was less desired by them than a unified government. It was destined to be wrung from their hard necessities. The Constitution was the reflex action of two opposing tendencies, the one the imperative need of an efficient central government, and the other the passionate attachment to local self-rule. Co-operation between the colonies had been a matter of long discussion and earnest debate, and primarily resulted from the necessity of defence against a common foe the French in Canada, and the Indians of the forest. In 1643 four of the New England colonies united in a league to defend themselves. In 1693 William Penn made the first suggestion for a union of all the colonies. In 1734 a council was held at Albany at the instance of the Crown to provide the means for the defence against France in Canada, and it was then that Franklin submitted the first concrete form for a union of the colonies into a permanent alliance. It was in advance of the times, for, conservative as it was, it was unfortunately opposed both by the Crown and the colonies themselves.
The time was not ripe for any such union, and the reason was apparent. The colonies differed very much in the character of their populations, in the nature of their economic interests, and in their political antecedents. They were not wholly of the English race. Many nations in Europe had already contributed to the population. For example, New York was partly Dutch, and in Pennsylvania there was a considerable element of the Swedes, Germans, and Swiss. Moreover, the colonists were as widely separated from each other, measured by the facilities of locomotion, as are the most remote nations of the world to-day. Only a few men ever found occasion to leave their colony to journey to another, and most men never left, from birth to death, the community in which they lived. Outside of the few scattered communities in the different colonies there was an almost unbroken wilderness, with few wagon roads and in places only a bridle path. The only methods of communication were the letters and still fewer newspapers, which were carried by post riders often through an almost trackless wilderness.
Obviously, a working government could not easily be constituted between peoples of different religions, races, and economic interests, who, for the most part, never met each other face to face and with whom frequent communication was impossible.
The differences between the colonies and the mother-country with respect to internal taxation slowly developed into an issue of constitutionalism rather than of legislative policy. As in England, the immediate question affected the power of the Crown to give to the customs inspectors the power to make general searches and seizures, to enforce the navigation laws. In 1761 James Otis, of Massachusetts, made a fateful speech before the colonial legislature, in which, asserting the illegality of the search warrants on the ground that they violated the constitutional rights of Englishmen to protection in their own homes, he asserted that Acts of Parliament which violated the sanctity of the home were void and that, more specifically, they violated the charter granted to Massachusetts. Asserting the doctrine which at that time was the doctrine of the English common law, as stated by Coke and three other Chief Justices, he said:
"To say the parliament is absolute and arbitrary is a contradiction. The Parliament cannot make two and two five. Omnipotency cannot do it.... Parliaments are in all cases to declare what is for the good of the whole; but it is not the declaration of parliament that makes it so: there must be in every instance a higher authority, viz., GOD. Should an Act of Parliament be against any of His natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity and justice, and consequently void; and so it would be adjudged by the Parliament itself, when convinced of their mistake."
It is a curious fact that in the reaction from the tyranny of the Stuarts your country abandoned this principle of the common law by substituting for the omnipotence of the Crown the omnipotence of Parliament, while in my country the somewhat vague and unworkable principle of the common law, which gave the judiciary the power to invalidate an act of the legislature, when against natural reason and justice, was developed into the great principle, without which institutions in an heterogeneous and widely scattered democracy would be unworkable, namely that the powers of government are strictly defined, and that neither the executive, the legislative, nor the judicial departments of the government can go beyond the precise limits established by the fundamental law. Like the common law, the Constitution was thus the result of a slow evolution. Mr. Gladstone, in his oft-quoted remark, gave an erroneous impression when he said:
"As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from progressive history, so the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off, at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."
This assumes that the Constitution sprang, like Minerva, armed cap-a-pie, from the brain of the American people, whereas it was as much the result of a slow, laborious, and painful evolution as was the British Constitution. Probably Gladstone so understood the development of the American Constitution and recognized that its framing was only the culmination of an evolution of many years.
When the constitutional struggle between the colonies and the Parliament became acute, the necessity of a union for a common defence became imperative. As early as July, 1773, Franklin recommended the "convening of a General Congress" so that the colonies would act together. His suggestion was introduced in the Virginia House of Burgesses in May, 1774, and as a result there met in Philadelphia on September 5 of that year the first Continental Congress, styled by themselves: "The Delegates appointed by the Good People of these Colonies." Nothing was further from their purpose than to form a central government or to separate from England. This Congress only met as a conference of representatives of the colonies to defend what they conceived to be their constitutional rights.
Before the second Continental Congress met in the following year, the accidental clash at Lexington and Concord had taken place, and as the Congress again re-convened a momentous change had taken place, which was, in fact, the beginning of the American Commonwealth. The Congress became by force of circumstances a provisional government, and as such it might well have claimed plenary powers to meet an immediate exigency. So indisposed were they to separate from England or to substitute for its rule that of a new government, that the Continental Congress, when it then involuntarily took over the government of America, failed to exercise any adequate power. It remained simply a conference without real power. Each colony had one vote and the rule of unanimity prevailed. Even its decisions were largely advisory, for they amounted to little more than recommendations to the constituent States as to what measures should be taken. Each colony complied with the recommendation in its discretion and in its own way. Notwithstanding this fatal lack of authority, the Continental Congress, then actually engaged in civil war, created an army, and, through its committees, entered into negotiations with foreign nations. To support the former, it issued paper money, with the disastrous result that could be readily anticipated. While it had a presiding officer, it had no executive, and the new nation, which was hardly conscious of its own birth, had no judiciary.
Had this de facto government assumed the plenary powers which provisional governments must, under similar circumstances, necessarily assume, it would have been better for the cause of the colonists. For want of an efficient central government, the civil administration of the infant nation was marked by a weakness and incapacity that defeated Washington's plans and nearly broke his spirit. Washington's little army was the victim of the gross incapacity of an impotent government. The soldiers came and went, not as the general commanded, but as the various colonies permitted. The tragedy of Valley Forge, when the little army nearly starved to death, and literally the soldiers could be tracked over the snows by their bleeding, unshod feet, was not due to lack of clothing and provisions, but to the gross incapacity of a headless government that if it had had the wisdom to act lacked the authority. The situation was one of chaos. The colonies recruited their own contingents, paid such taxes as they pleased, which grew increasingly less, and the Congress had no coercive power to enforce its policies, either with reference to internal or external affairs. This situation was so clearly recognized that immediately after the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the draft of a constitution was proposed to give the central government more effective power; but, although the necessity was manifest and most urgent, the so-called Articles of Confederation, which were then drafted in 1776, were never finally adopted by the requisite number of States until March, 1781, when the war was nearly over. As the result proved, they marked only a very small advance over the existing de facto government, for the constituent States were still too jealous of each other and too hostile to the creation of a central government to form a truly effective government. The founders of the Republic could only learn from their errors, but it is their great merit that they had the ability to profit in the stern school of experience, of which Franklin has said that it is a "dear school, but fools will learn in no other."
The founders of the Republic were not fools, and while they did not, as Gladstone seems to intimate, have the inspired wisdom to develop a wonderful Constitution by sheer intuition unaided by experience, they did have the ability to make of their very errors the stepping-stones to a higher destiny.
By the Articles of Confederation, which, as stated, became effective in 1781, the conduct of foreign affairs was vested in the new government, which was also given the power to create admiralty courts, regulate coinage, maintain an army and navy, borrow money, and emit bills of credit, but the great limitation was that in all other respects the constituent States retained absolute power, especially with reference to commerce and taxation. All that the central government could do was to requisition the States to furnish food supplies, and the States were then left to impose the taxes and, if necessary, to enforce their payment in their own way, with the inevitable result that they vied with each other in the struggle to evade them. The Confederation had no direct power over the citizens of the several States. Moreover, the Congress could not levy any taxes, or indeed pass any measure unless nine out of the thirteen States agreed, and the Constitution could not be amended except by unanimous vote. While the Congress could select a presiding officer to serve for one year, yet he had no real executive authority. During the recess of the Congress, a committee of thirteen, consisting of one delegate from each State, had ad interim powers, but not greater than the Congress, which they represented.
Such a government would have been fatal to any people, and so it nearly proved to be to the infant nation. Two circumstances saved them from the consequences of such incapacity: one was the invaluable aid of France, and the other the personality of George Washington. Of this great leader, one of the noblest that ever "lived in the tide of time," it is only necessary to quote the fine tribute paid to him by the greatest of the Victorian novelists in his Virginians:
"What a constancy, what a magnanimity, what a surprising persistence against fortune!... Washington, the chief of a nation in arms, doing battle with distracted parties; calm in the midst of conspiracy; serene against the open foe before him and the darker enemies at his back; Washington, inspiring order and spirit into troops hungry and in rags; stung by ingratitude, but betraying no anger, and every ready to forgive; in defeat invincible, magnanimous in conquest and never so sublime as on that day when he laid down his victorious sword and sought his noble retirement—here, indeed, is a character to admire and revere; a life without a stain, a fame without a flaw."
A year after the Articles of Confederation had been adopted, the war came to an end by a preliminary treaty on November 30, 1782.
Now follows the least known chapter in American history. It was a period of travail, of which the Constitution of the United States and the present American nation were born. The government slowly succumbed from its own weakness to its inevitable death. Only the shreds and patches of authority were left. Gradually the union fell apart. Of the Continental Congress only fifteen members, representing seven colonies, remained to transact the affairs of the new nation. The army, which previously to the termination of the war had dissolved by the hundreds, was now unpaid and in a stale of revolt. Measure after measure was proposed in Congress to raise money to pay the interest on the bonded indebtedness, which was in arrears, and to provide funds for the most necessary expenses, but these failed, in Congress for the want of the necessary nine votes or, if enacted, the States treated the requisitions with indifference. The currency of the United States had fallen almost as low as the Austrian kronen, and men derisively plastered the walls of their houses with the worthless paper of the Continental Congress. Adequate authority no longer remained to carry out the terms of the treaties with England and France, and they were nullified by the failure of the infant nation to comply with its own obligations and the consequent refusal of the other contracting parties to comply with theirs. The government made a call upon the States to raise $8,000,000 for the most vital needs, but only $400,000 was actually received. Then Congress asked the States to vest in it the power to levy a tax of five per cent, on imports for a limited period, but, after waiting two years for the action of the States, less than nine concurred. The States were then asked to pledge their own internal revenue for twenty-five years to meet the national indebtedness, but this could only be done by unanimous consent, and while twelve States concurred, Rhode Island refused and the measure was defeated. It was again the infinite folly of the liberum veto which, prior to the great partition, condemned Poland to chronic anarchy.
The impotence of the new government, which was still sitting in Philadelphia, can be measured by the fact that on June 9, 1783, word came that eighty soldiers were on their way to Philadelphia to demand relief. They stacked their arms in front of the State House, where the Congress was then sitting, and refused to disband, when requested by Col. Alexander Hamilton, as the representative of the Congress, to do so. When Congress appealed to the government of Pennsylvania for protection, it was advised that the Pennsylvania militia was likewise insubordinate. The Congress then hastily fled by night and became a fugitive.
The impotence of the Confederation can be measured by the fact that in the last fourteen months of its existence its receipts were less than $400,000, while the interest on the foreign debt alone was over $2,400,000, and the interest on the internal debt was five-fold greater.
In the absence of any government and in the period of general prostration it was not unnatural that the spirit of Bolshevism grew with alarming rapidity. It even permeated the officers of the Army. In March, 1783, an anonymous communication was sent to Washington's officers to meet in secret conference to take some action, possibly to overthrow the government. A copy fell into Washington's hands and, while he forbade the assemblage of the officers under the anonymous call, he himself directed the officers to assemble. He unexpectedly appeared at the meeting and, being no speaker, he had reduced his appeal to writing. As he adjusted his spectacles to read it, he pathetically said: "I have not only grown gray but blind in your service." He then made a touching appeal to them not to increase by example the spreading spirit of revolt. The very sight of their old commander turned the hearts of the revolting element and the officers remained loyal to their noble leader.
Where the spirit of disaffection was thus found in high places it naturally prevailed more widely among the masses who had been driven to frenzy by their sufferings. This culminated in a revolt in Massachusetts under the leadership of an old soldier named Shays, and it spread with such rapidity that not only did one-fifth of the people join in attempting to overthrow the remnant of established authority in Massachusetts, but it rapidly spread to other States. The offices of government and the courthouses were seized, the collection of debts was forbidden, and private property was forcibly appropriated to meet the common needs.
Chaos had come again. It filled Washington's heart with disgust and despair. After surrendering his commission to the pitiful remnant of the government he had retired to Mount Vernon, and for a time declined to act further as the leader of his people. Thus, in October, 1785, he wrote James Warren, of Massachusetts:
"The war, as you have very justly observed, has terminated most advantageously for America, and a fair field is presented to our view; but I confess to you freely, my dear sir, that I do not think we possess wisdom or justice enough to cultivate it properly. Illiberality, jealousy, and local policy mix too much in all our public councils for good government of the union. In a word, the Confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance, and Congress a nugatory body, their ordinances being little attended to.... By such policy as this the wheels of government are clogged, and our brightest prospects, and that high expectation which was entertained of us by the wondering world, are turned into astonishment; and, from the high ground on which we stood, we are descending into the vale of confusion and darkness."
Again he wrote to George Mason:
"I have seen without despondency, even for a moment, the hours which America has styled its gloomy ones, but I have beheld no day since the commencement of hostilities that I thought our liberties in such imminent danger as at present. Indeed, we are verging so fast to destruction that I am feeling that sense to which I have been a stranger until within these three months."
Again in 1786 he writes:
"I think often of our situation, and view it with concern. From the high ground we stood upon, from the plain path which invited our footsteps, to be so fallen, so lost, is mortifying; but everything of virtue has, in a degree, taken its departure from our land.... What, gracious God, is man that there should be such inconsistency, and perfidiousness in his conduct! It was but the other day that we were shedding our blood to obtain the Constitutions under which we now live, and now we are unsheathing our swords to overturn them. The thing is so unaccountable that I hardly know how to realize it or to persuade myself that I am not under an illusion of a dream."
It was, however, the darkest hour before the dawn, and again it was Washington who became his country's saviour. In 1785, some commissioners from the States of Virginia and Maryland visited Mount Vernon to pay their respects to the well-loved commander. After conferring with him upon the chaos of the times, they decided to issue a call for a general conference of the representatives of the States to be held on September 11, 1786, at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss how far the States themselves could agree on common regulations of commerce. At the appointed time the delegates assembled from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey, and finding themselves too few in number to achieve the great objective, the convention contented itself by issuing another call, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, then under thirty years of age, to all the States to send delegates to a convention to be held in Philadelphia on the second Monday in May, 1787, "to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as should appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."
The dying Congress tardily approved of this suggestion, but finally, on January 21, 1787, grudgingly adopted a resolution that—
"It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several States, be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and conformed to by the States, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigency of the government and the preservation of the union."
It will be noted by the italicized portions of the resolution that this impotent body thus vainly attempted to cling to the shadow of its vanished authority by stating that the proposed constitutional convention should merely revise the worthless Articles of Confederation and that such amendments should not have validity until adopted by Congress as well as by the people of the several States. How this mandate was disregarded and how the convention was formed, and proceeded to create a new government with a new Constitution, and how it achieved its mighty work, will be the subject of the next lecture.
Anticipating the masterly ability with which a seemingly impotent and dying nation plucked from the nettle of danger the flower of safety, let me conclude this first address by quoting the words of de Tocqueville, in his remarkable work Democracy in America, where he says:
"The Federal Government, condemned to impotence by its Constitution and no longer sustained by the presence of common danger ... was already on the verge of destruction when it officially proclaimed its inability to conduct the government and appealed to the constituent authority of the nation.... It is a novelty in the history of a society to see a calm and scrutinizing eye turned upon itself, when apprised by the legislature that the wheels of government are stopped; to see it carefully examine the extent of the field and patiently wait for two years until a remedy was discovered, which it voluntarily adopted, without having ever wrung a tear or a drop of blood from mankind."
II. The Great Convention
Now follows a notable and yet little known scene in the drama of history. It reveals a people who, without shedding a drop of blood, calmly and deliberately abolished one government, substituted another, and erected it upon foundations which have hitherto proved enduring. Even the superstructure slowly erected upon these foundations has suffered little change in the most changing period of the world's history, and until recently its additions, few in number, have varied little from the plans of the original architects. The Constitution is to-day, not a ruined Parthenon, but rather as one of those Gothic masterpieces, against which the storms of passionate strife have beaten in vain. The foundations were laid at a time when disorder was rampant and anarchy widely prevalent. As I have already shown in my first lecture, credit was gone, business paralysed, lawlessness triumphant, and not only between class and class, but between State and State, there were acute controversies and an alarming disunity of spirit. To weld thirteen jealous and discordant States, demoralized by an exhausting war, into a unified and efficient nation against their wills, was a seemingly impossible task. Frederick the so-called Great had said that a federal union of widely scattered communities was impossible. Its final accomplishment has blinded the world to the essential difficulty of the problem.
The time was May 25, 1787; the place, the State House in Philadelphia, a little town of not more than 20,000 people, and, at that time, as remote, measured by the facilities of communication, to the centres of civilization as is now Vladivostok.
The dramatis personae in this drama, though few in numbers, were, however, worthy of the task.
Seventy-two had originally been offered or given credentials, for each State was permitted to send as many delegates as it pleased, inasmuch as the States were to vote in the convention as units. Of these, the greatest actual attendance was fifty-five, and at the end of the convention a saving remnant of only thirty-nine remained to finish a work which was to immortalize its participants.
While this notable group of men contained a few merchants, financiers, farmers, doctors, educators, and soldiers, of the remainder, at least thirty-one were lawyers, and of these many had been justices of the local courts and executive officers of the commonwealths. Four had studied in the Inner Temple, at least five in the Middle Temple, one at Oxford under the tuition of Blackstone and two in Scottish Universities. Few of them were inexperienced in public affairs, for of the original fifty-five members, thirty-nine had been members of the first or second Continental Congresses, and eight had already helped to frame the constitutions of their respective States. At least twenty-two were college graduates, of whom nine were graduates of Princeton, three of Yale, two of Harvard, four of William and Mary, and one each from the Universities of Oxford, Columbia, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. A few already enjoyed world-wide fame, notably Doctor Franklin, possibly the most versatile genius of the eighteenth century and universally known and honoured as a scientist, philosopher, and diplomat, and George Washington, whose fame, even at that day, had filled the world with the noble purity of his character.
It was a convention of comparatively young men, the average age being little above forty. Franklin was the oldest member, being then eighty-one; Dayton, the youngest, being twenty-seven. With the exception of Franklin and Washington, most of the potential personalities in the convention were under forty. Thus, James Madison, who contributed so largely to the plan that he is sometimes called "The Father of the Constitution," was thirty-six. Charles Pinckney, who, unaided, submitted the first concrete draft of the Constitution, was only twenty-nine, and Alexander Hamilton, who was destined to take a leading part in securing its ratification by his powerful oratory and his very able commentaries in the Federalist papers, was only thirty.
Above all they were a group of gentlemen of substance and honour, who could debate for four months during the depressing weather of a hot summer without losing their tempers, except momentarily—and this despite vital differences—and who showed that genius for toleration and reconciliation of conflicting views inspired by a common fidelity to a great objective that is the highest mark of statesmanship. They represented the spirit of representative government at its best in avoiding the cowardice of time-servers and the low cunning of demagogues. All apparently were inspired by a fine spirit of self-effacement. Selfish ambition was conspicuously absent. They differed, at times heatedly, but always as gentlemen of candour and honour. The very secrecy of their deliberations, of which I shall presently speak, is ample proof how indifferent they were to popular applause and the civium ardor prava jubentium.
The convention had been slow in assembling. Ample notice had been given that it would convene on May 13, 1787, but when that day arrived a mere handful of the delegates, less than a quorum, had assembled.
The Virginia delegation, six in number, and forming probably the ablest delegation from any State, arriving in time, and failing to find a quorum then assembled, employed the period of waiting in submitting to the Pennsylvania delegation the outlines of a plan for the new Constitution. The plan was largely the work of James Madison, and how long it had been in preparation cannot be definitely stated. It is clear that four years before a Philadelphia merchant, one Peletiah Webster, had published a brochure proposing a scheme of dual sovereignty, under which the citizens would owe a double allegiance—one to the constituent States within the sphere of their reserved powers, and one to a federated government within the sphere of its delegated powers. Leagues of States had often existed, but a league which, within a prescribed sphere, would have direct authority over the citizens of the constituent States, without, however, abolishing the authority of such States as to their reserved sphere of power, was a novel theory. How far the Virginia project had been influenced by Webster's suggestion is not clear, but it is certain that before the convention met Pennsylvania and Virginia, two of the most powerful States, were committed to it.
The suggestion was a radical one, for the States, with few exceptions, were chiefly insistent upon the preservation of their sovereignty, and while they were willing to amend the Articles of Confederation by giving fuller authority to the central government, such as it was, the suggestion of subordinating the States to a new sovereign power, whose authority within circumscribed limits was to be supreme, was opposed to all their conventions and traditions. Washington, however, had warmly welcomed the creation of a strong central government, and his correspondence with the leading men of the colonies for some years previously had been burdened with arguments to convince them that a mere league of States would not suffice to create a stable nation. To George Washington, soldier and statesman, is due above all men the ideal of a federated union, for without his influence—that of a noble and unselfish leader—the great result would probably never have been secured. While still waiting for the convention, to meet, and while discussing what was expedient and practicable when they did meet, Washington one day said to a group of delegates, who were considering the acute nature of the crisis:
"It is too probable that no plan that we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and just can repair. The event is in the hand of God."
Noble words, fit to be written in letters of gold over the portal of every legislature of the world, and it was in this spirit that the convention finally convened on May 25th, 1787.
When the delegates from nine States had assembled, Washington was unanimously elected the presiding officer of the convention. It began by adopting rules of order, and the most significant of these was the provision for secrecy. No copy should be taken of any entry on the Journal, or even permission given to inspect it, without leave of the convention, and "nothing spoken in the house be printed or otherwise published or communicated without leave." The yeas and nays should not be recorded. The rule of secrecy was enlarged by an unwritten understanding that, even when the convention had adjourned, no disclosure should be made of its proceedings during the life of its members. When after nearly four months, the convention adjourned, the secret had been kept, and no one knew even the concrete result of its deliberations until the Constitution itself, and nothing else, was offered to the approval of the people. The high-way, upon which the State House fronted, was covered with earth, to deaden the noise of traffic, and sentries were posted at every means of ingress and egress, to prevent any intrusion upon the privacy of the convention. The members were not photographed daily for the pictorial Press, nor did any cinema register their entrance into the simple colonial hall where they were to meet. Notwithstanding this limitation—for no present-day conference or assembly can proceed with its labours until its members are photographed for the curiosity of the public—these simple-minded gentlemen—less intent upon their appearance than their task—were to accomplish a work of enduring importance.
The extreme care which was taken to preserve this secrecy inviolate, and its purpose, were indicated in an incident handed down by tradition.
One of the members dropped a copy of a proposition then before the convention for consideration, and it was found by another of the delegates and handed to General Washington. At the conclusion of the session, Washington arose and sternly reprimanded the member for his carelessness by saying:
"I must entreat gentlemen to be more careful, lest our transactions get into the newspapers and disturb the public repose by premature speculations. I know not whose paper it is, but there it is [throwing it down on the table]. Let him who owns it, take it."
He then bowed, picked up his hat and left the room with such evidences of annoyance that, like school-children, no delegate was willing to admit the ownership of the paper.
The thought suggests itself: How different the result at Versailles and Genoa might have been had there been the same reasonable provisions for discussion and action uninfluenced by too premature public comment of the day! In these days, when representative government has degenerated into government by a fleeting public opinion, the price we pay for such government by, for and of the Press, is too often the inability of representatives to do what they deem wise and just.
At the close of the convention its records were committed into the keeping of Washington, with instructions to "retain the journal and other papers, subject to order of Congress, if ever formed under the Constitution."
Even the journal consisted of little more than daily memoranda, from which the minutes ought to have been, but never were, made; and these fragmentary records of the proceedings of a convention which had been in continuous session for nearly four months were never published until the year 1819, or thirty-two years after the close of the convention. Thus, the American people knew nothing of their greatest convention until a generation later, and then only a few bones of the mastodon were exhibited to their curious gaze.
The members of the convention kept its secrets inviolate for many years. With few exceptions, the great secrets of the convention died with them. Only one, James Madison, left a comprehensive statement of the more formal proceedings. With this notable exception, only a few anecdotes, handed down by tradition, escaped oblivion. The first of the number to break the pledge of secrecy was Robert Yates, Chief Justice of New York, who, in 1821, published his recollections; but, as he had left the convention a few months after it began, his notes ceased with the 5th of July.
The world would thus have been for ever ignorant of the details of one of the most remarkable conventions in the annals of mankind had it not been that one of the ablest of their number, James Madison, regularly attended the sessions and kept notes from day to day of the debates. While he was not a stenographer, he had a gift for condensing a speech and fairly representing its substance. He jealously guarded his Journal of the Convention until his death. Its very existence was known to few. He died in 1836, and four years later the government purchased the manuscript from his widow. Then, for the first time, the curtain was measurably raised upon the proceedings of a convention which had created, as we now know, one of the greatest nations in history. Fifty-three years after the close of the convention, and when nearly every one of its participants were dead, Madison's Journal was first published.
When was a great secret better kept? Grateful as posterity must be for this inestimable gift of great human enterprise, yet even Madison's careful journal fills one with the deepest regret that this wonderful debate, which lasted for nearly four months between men of no ordinary ability, could not have been preserved to the world.
Two or three of the speeches which Madison gives in his Journal are complete, for when Doctor Franklin spoke he reduced his remarks to writing and gave a copy to Madison, but of the other speeches only a fragrant remains. Thus, that "admirable Crichton," Alexander Hamilton, addressed the convention in a speech that lasted five hours, in which he stated his philosophy of government, but of that only a short condensation, and possibly not even an accurate fragment, remains.
Without this extraordinary provision for secrecy, which is so opposed to modern democratic conventions, and which so little resembles the famous point as to "open covenants openly arrived at," the convention could not have accomplished its great work, for these wise men realized that a statesman cannot act wisely under the observation of a gallery, and especially when the gallery compels him by the pressure of public opinion to work as it directs. I recognize that public opinion—often temporarily uninformed but in the end generally right—does often save the democracies of the world from the selfish ends of self-seeking and misguided leadership; but, given noble and wise representatives, they work best when least influenced by the fleeting passions of the day.
It is evident that if the framers of the Constitution had met, as similar conventions have within recent years met at Versailles and Genoa, with the world as their gallery and with the representatives of the Press as an integral part of the conference, they would have accomplished nothing. The probability is that the convention would not have lasted a month if their immediate purpose had been to placate current opinion. It may be doubted whether such a convention, if called to-day, either in your country or mine, could achieve like results, for in this day of unlimited publicity, when men divide not as individuals but in powerful and organized groups, a constitutional convention would, I fear, prove a witches' cauldron of class legislation and demagoguery. Is it not possible that modern democracy is in danger of strangulation by its present-day methods and ideals? Again the words of Washington suggest themselves: "If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and just can repair."
Working with a sad sincerity and with despair in their hearts, this little band of men wrought a work of surpassing importance, and if they did not receive the immediate plaudits of the living generation, their shades can at least solace themselves with the reflection that posterity has acclaimed their work as one of the greatest political achievements of man.
The rules of order and the nature of the proceedings thus determined, the convention opened by an address by Mr. Randolph of Virginia, in which he submitted, in the form of fifteen points—nearly the number of the fatal fourteen—the outlines for a new government. He himself in his opening speech summarized the propositions by candidly confessing "that they were not intended for a federal government" (thereby meaning a mere league of States) but "a strong consolidated union." Upon this radical change the convention was to argue earnestly and at times bitterly for many a weary day. The plan provided for a national legislature of which the lower branch should be elected by the people and the upper branch by the lower branch upon the nomination of the legislatures of the States. This legislature should enjoy all the legislative rights given to the federation, and there followed the sweeping grant that it "could legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual legislation," with power "to negative all laws passed by the several States contravening in the opinion of the national legislature the Articles of the Union."
A national executive was proposed, together with a national judiciary, and these two bodies were given authority "to examine every act of the national legislature before it shall operate and every act of a particular legislature before a negative thereon shall be final." This marked an immense advance over the Articles of Confederation, under which there was no national executive or judiciary, and under which the legislature had no direct power over the citizens of the States, and could only impose duties upon the States themselves by the concurrence of nine of the thirteen.
Hardly had Mr. Randolph submitted the so-called Virginia plan when Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, a young man of twenty-nine years of age, with the courage of youth submitted to the House a draft of the future federal government. Curiously enough, it did not differ in principle from the Virginia plan, but was more specific and concrete in stating the powers which the federal government should exercise, and many of its provisions were embodied in the final draft. Indeed, Pinckney's plan was the future Constitution of the United States in embryo; and when it is read and contrasted with the document which has so justly won the acclaim of men throughout the world, it is amazing that so young a man should have anticipated and reduced to a concrete and effective form many of the most novel features of the Federal Government. As the only copy of Pinckney's plan was furnished years afterwards to Madison for his journal, it is possible that some of its wisdom was of the post factum variety.
Having received the two plans, the convention then went, on May 30, into a committee of the whole to consider the fifteen propositions in the Virginia plan seriatim. They wisely concluded to determine abstract ideas first and concrete forms later. Apparently for the time being little attention was paid to Pinckney's plan, and this may have been due to the hostile attitude of the older members of the convention to the presumption of his youth.
Then ensued a very remarkable debate on the immediate propositions and the principles of government which underlay them, which lasted for two weeks. On June 13 the committee rose. Even the fragments of this debate, which may well have been one of the most notable in history, indicate the care with which the members had studied governments of ancient and modern times. There were many points of difference, but chief of them, which nearly resulted in the collapse of the convention, was the inevitable difficulty which always arises in the formation of a league of States or an association of nations between the great and the little States.
The five larger States had a population that was nearly twice as great as the remaining eight States. Thus Virginia's population was nearly ten-fold as great as Georgia. Moreover, the States differed greatly in their material wealth and power. Nevertheless, all of them entered the convention as independent sovereign nations, and the smaller nations contended that the equality in suffrage and political power which prevailed in the convention (in which each State, large or small, voted as a unit), should and must be preserved in the future government. To this the larger States were quite unwilling to yield, and when the committee rose they reported, in substance, the Virginia plan, with the proviso that representation in the proposed double-chambered Congress should be "according to some equitable ratio of representation."
On June 15 the small States presented their draft, which was afterwards known as the New Jersey plan, because it was introduced by Mr. Patterson of that State. It only contemplated an amendment to the existing Constitution and an amplification of the powers of the impotent Confederation. Its chief advance over the existing government was that it provided for a federal executive and a federal judiciary, but otherwise the government remained a mere league of States, in which the central government could generally act only by the vote of nine States, and in which their power was exhausted when they requested the States to enforce the decrees. Its chief advance over the Articles of Confederation, in addition to the creation of an executive, was an assertion that the acts of Congress "shall be the supreme law of the respective States ... and that the judiciary of the several States shall be bound thereby in their decisions," and that "if any State or any body of men in any State shall oppose or prevent the carrying into execution of such acts or treaties the federal executive shall be authorized to call forth the power of the confederated States ... to enforce and compel obedience to such acts or an observance of such treaties."
While this was some advance toward a truly national government, it yet left the national executive dependent upon the constituent States, for if they failed to respond to the call above stated the national government had no direct power over their citizens.
The New Jersey plan precipitated a crisis, and thereafter, and for many days, the argument proceeded, only to increase in bitterness.
On June 18 Alexander Hamilton, who agreed with no one else, addressed the convention for the first time. He spoke for five hours and reviewed exhaustively the Virginia and New Jersey plans, and possibly the Pinckney draft. Even the fragment of the speech, as taken in long-hand by Madison, shows that it was a masterly argument. He stated his belief "that the British Government was the best in the world and that he doubted much whether anything short of it would do in America." He praised the British Constitution, quoting Monsieur Necker as saying that "it was the only government in the world which unites government strength with individual security." He analysed and explained your Constitution as it then was and advocated an elective monarchy in form though not in name. It is true that he called the executive a "governor" and not a king, but the governor, so-called, was to serve for life and was given not only "a negative on all laws about to be passed," but even the execution of all duly enacted laws was in his discretion. The governor, with the consent of the Senate, was to make war, conclude all treaties, make all appointments, pardon all offences, with the full power through his negative of saying what laws should be passed and which enforced. Hamilton's governor would have been not dissimilar to Louis XIV, and could have said with him, "L'etat, c'est moi!" The Senate also served for life, and the only concession which Hamilton made to democracy was an elective house of representatives. Thinly veiled, his plan contemplated an elective king with greater powers than those of George III, an imitation House of Lords and a popular House of Commons with a limited tenure.
Hamilton's plan was never taken seriously and, so far as the records show, was never afterwards considered. His admirers have given great praise to his work in the federal convention. His real contribution lay in the fact that when the Constitution was finally drafted and offered to the people, while he regarded it as a "wretched makeshift," to use his own expression, yet he was broad and patriotic enough to surrender his own views and advocate the adoption of the Constitution. In so doing, he fought a valorous fight, secured the acquiescence of the State of New York, and without its ratification the Constitution would never have been adopted. Hamilton later thought better of the Constitution, and its successful beginning is due in large measure to his genius for constructive administration.
As the debate proceeded, the crisis precipitated by the seemingly insoluble differences between the great and little States became more acute. The smaller States contended that the convention was transgressing its powers, and they demanded that the credentials of the various members be read. In this there was technical accuracy, for the delegates had been appointed to revise the Articles of Confederation and not to adopt a new Constitution. A majority of the convention, however, insisted upon the convention proceeding with the consideration of a new Constitution, and their views prevailed. It speaks well for the honour of the delegates that although their differences became so acute as to lead at times to bitter expressions, neither side divulged them to the outside public. The smaller States could easily have ended the convention by an appeal to public opinion, which was not then prepared for a "consolidated union," but they were loyal enough to fight out their quarrels within the walls of the convention hall.
At times the debate became bitter in the extreme. James Wilson, a delegate of Pennsylvania and a Scotchman by birth and education, turning to the representatives of the little States, passionately said:
"Will you abandon a country to which you are bound by so many strong and enduring ties? Should the event happen, it will neither stagger my sentiments nor duty. If the minority of the people refuse to coalesce with the majority on just and proper principles, if a separation must take place, it could never happen on better grounds."
He referred to the demand of the larger States that representation should be proportioned to the population. To this Bedford, of Delaware, as heatedly replied;
"We have been told with a dictatorial air that this is the last moment for a fair trial in favour of good government. It will be the last, indeed, if the propositions reported by the committee go forth to the people. The large States dare not dissolve the convention. If they do, the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honour and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice."
Finally, the smaller States gave their ultimatum to the larger States that unless representation in both branches of the proposed legislature should be on the basis of equality—each State, whether large or small, having one vote—they would forthwith leave the convention. An eye-witness says that, at that moment, Washington, who was in the chair, gave old Doctor Franklin a significant look. Franklin arose and moved an adjournment for forty-eight hours, with the understanding that the delegates should confer with those with whom they disagreed rather than with those with whom they agreed.
A recess was taken, and when the convention re-convened on July 2, a vote was taken as to equality of representation in the Senate and resulted in a tie vote. It was then decided to appoint a committee of eleven, one from each State, to consider the question, and this committee reported three days later, on July 5, in favour of proportionate representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate. This suggestion, which finally saved the situation, was due to that wise old utilitarian philosopher, Franklin. Again, a vehement and passionate debate followed. Vague references were made to the sword as the only method of solving the difference.
On July 9 the committee again reported, maintaining the principle of their recommendation, while modifying its details, and the debate then turned upon the question to what extent the negro slaves should count in estimating population for the purposes of proportionate representation in the lower House. Various suggestions were made to base representation upon wealth or taxation and not upon population. For several days the debate lasted during very heated weather, but on the night of July 12 the temperature dropped and with it the emotional temperature of the delegates.
Some days previous, namely, June 28, when the debates were becoming so bitter that it seemed unlikely that the convention could continue, Doctor Franklin, erroneously supposed by many to be an atheist, made the following solemn and beautiful appeal to their better natures. He said:
"The small progress we have made after four or five weeks' close attendance and continual reasonings with each other—our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes, is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed modern States all around Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
"In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings?... And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: That God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that 'except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.
"I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service."
It may surprise my audience to know the sequel. The resolution was voted down, partly on the ground that if it became known to the public that the convention had finally resorted to prayers it might cause undue alarm, but also because the convention was by that time so low in funds that, as one of the members said, it did not have enough money to pay a clergyman his fees for the service. I suspect that their controlling reason was their indisposition to break their self-imposed rule of secrecy by contact with the outer world until their work was completed. Perhaps they thought that "God helps those who help themselves."
On July 16 the compromise was finally adopted of recognizing the claims of the larger States to proportionate representation in the House of Representatives, and recognizing the claims of the smaller States by according to them equal representation in the Senate. This great result was not effected without the first break in the convention, for the delegates from New York left in disgust and never returned, with the exception of Hamilton, who occasionally attended subsequent sessions. Such was the great concession that was made to secure the Constitution; and the only respect in which the Constitution to-day cannot be amended is that by express provision the equality of representation in the Senate shall never be disturbed. Thus it is that to-day some States, which have less population than some of the wards in the city of New York, have as many votes in the Senate as the great State of New York. It is unquestionably a palpable negation of majority rule, for as no measure can become a law without the concurrence of the Senate—now numbering ninety-six Senators—a combination of the little States, whoso aggregate population is not a fifth of the American people, can defeat the will of the remaining four-fifths. Pennsylvania and New York, with nearly one-sixth of the entire population of the United States, have only four votes in ninety-six votes in the Senate.
Fortunately, political alignments have rarely been between the greater and the smaller States exclusively. Their equality in the Senate was a big price to pay for the Union, but, as the event has shown, not too great.
The convention next turned its attention to the Executive and the manner of its selection, and upon this point there was the widest contrariety of view, but, fortunately, without the acute feeling that the relative power of the States had occasioned.
Then the judiciary article was taken up, and there was much earnest discussion as to whether the new Constitution should embody the French idea of giving to the judiciary, in conjunction with the Executive, a revisory power over legislation. Three times the convention voted upon this dangerous proposition, and on one occasion it was only defeated by a single vote. Fortunately, the good sense of the convention rejected a proposition, that had caused in France constant conflicts between the Executive and the Judiciary, by substituting the right of the President to veto congressional legislation, with the right of Congress, by a two-thirds vote of each House, to override the veto, and secondly by an implied power in the Judiciary to annul Congressional or State legislation, not on the grounds of policy, but on the sole ground of inconsistency with the paramount law of the Constitution. In this adjustment, the influence of Montesquieu was evident.
These and many practical details had resulted in an expansion of the fifteen proposals of the Virginia plan to twenty-three.
Having thus determined the general principles that should guide them in their labours, the convention, on July 26 appointed a Committee on Detail to embody these propositions in the formal draft of a Constitution and adjourned until August 6 to await its report. That report, when finally completed, covered seven folio pages, and was found to consist of a Preamble and twenty-three Articles, embodying forty-three sections. The draft did not slavishly follow the Virginia propositions, for the committee embodied some valuable suggestions which had occurred to them in their deliberations. Nevertheless, it substantially put the Virginia plan into a workable plan which proved to be the Constitution of the United States in embryo.