As our country sputters, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes recklessly, I find myself reading more of our history, as if morsels from a noble past can nourish me through our present morass. I recently finished Plain, Honest Men – The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman, a terrific book about the Philadelphia summer of 1787 and the delegates from the 13 states (or almost that many, Rhode Island never got their act together to actually show up) who composed the Constitution. Since the precepts of that document figure prominently in Pedaling Principles, I was interested to learn the details of how it came to life.
My conceptions of the Constitution’s birth proved more or less accurate. All agreed that the existing Articles of Confederation were inadequate, though beyond that there was great disagreement as to how to improve them. James Madison and the Virginia cohort’s efforts to jumpstart the process by introducing a well developed scheme early was a strategically wise move; they framed the debate towards the concept of creating new government rather than simply restructuring the Articles. However, they probably moved too far too fast, as a backlash ensued that dragged the convention on for months before they reached the compromise document.
I found two very compelling aspects of this narrative. The first aligns well with my ideas of how to identify guiding principles and move forward based on identified mutual best interest. Time and again the founders hit an impasse, but they always iterated back to step one – that the Articles had to be scrapped – and refused yield that point. The conflicts between the large states and small states, the slave states andfree states, the emerging industrial states and the established agricultural states were huge, yet they kept hammering and compromising to find scraps of common ground. Two hundred plus years later, we tend to enshrine the Constitution as a perfect description of how to govern when in reality it was a compromise all around.
The second compelling aspect of this narrative helped me understand that the roots of our money-driven society trace all the way back to the Constitution and even before. The men who created the Constitution were the moneyed class ofAmerica. Though they proclaimed a government in the name of the people, they did not establish a government that directly reflected the people’s will. Many of them were contemptuous of the ability of the ‘mob’ to direct elect a responsible government; hence the indirect selection of Senators, the Electoral College and other quirks in our supposed democracy. However, they all believed that money talks and spun many debates about how to measure wealth as the determinant for influence. Only after they agreed that there was a direct correlation between a state’s population and their respective wealth, did the delegates agree to allow ‘people’ and not ‘property’ determine the level of representation that each state would have in Congress.
The most infamous example of this mode of thinking was the 3/5 rule; that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person in terms of establishing representation. The fraction came out of an unscientific measure of the relative economic vale of a slave over a free worker. It is perhaps the most bizarre compromise in the entire document. It reflects the national confliction about slavery and bows to the reality that the Constitutional Congress was not prepared to address it. The Southern states insisted on counting slaves as full people, while simultaneously insisting they were property. The Northern states did not want slaves counted for voting purposes at all; there may be few slaves in the North but that didn’t mean they actually wanted black people to vote. Still Northerners were uncomfortable calling them property. Rufus King of Massachusetts actually argued that if slaves were property yet worthy of some fractional vote, why not give a vote to the horses and oxen that provided the backbone of running New England farms? The 3/5 rule demonstrates a compromise where no compromise can exist. Either a person is a person or they are not. The framers sought expediency, they all held their noses and agreed on 3/5, and seventy-five years later, 600,000 Americans died settling the question.
Two hundred twenty-three years after signing the Constitution, the Supreme Court overturned corporate limits on campaign contributions in the Citizens United case. Our current Supreme Court has a strong ‘Constitution as literal gospel’ bent, so it is easy to see why they would maintain that corporations should be unfettered in how they throw around their wealth. If Eighteenth century slaves could be considered subhuman, to the tune of 3/5, because of their economic inferiority, then the astronomical wealth of 21st century corporations make them a sort of superhuman species. Citizens United, though draped in the mantle of first amendment free speech, actually reinforces the idea that money, rather than individuals, forms the core of political power. In that regard it is a pathetic but accurate reflection of our founding fathers vision.
When we hold the Constitution as ultimate and complete, we deny having our own vision. Only when we understand the Constitution as a template designed to be customized as our ideals of representative government enlarge, can it enhance, rather than hinder, our vision.