Prof: On Thursday,
I gave the world’s most condensed lecture about the
Constitution, and I mentioned three
controversies that represented long-standing concerns in
Revolutionary America: the question of representation,
the problem of slavery, and then the question of a
national executive– so that really boils down to
the problem of investing power in one man.
Now I did manage to discuss all
three of those things briefly before the end of the lecture.
I did not have time to discuss
one last issue, which I do want to talk about
here before I go into the real topic of today’s lecture.
I just ran out of time.
And it actually combines two of
those issues. It’s the combination of the
problem of representation and the problem of slavery,
and it’s something you’ve all studied in high school,
I am sure, and that is the Three-Fifths Compromise.
And in a sentence,
the Three-Fifths Compromise is the decision to count
three-fifths of a state’s slaves in apportioning representatives,
presidential electors and direct taxes.
So obviously by doing that–and
that is a compromise of sorts– it is trying to grapple with
the problem of slavery and the question of representation,
but obviously that’s a compromise that bolsters
Southern political power. Now the great historian of
slavery, Yale professor emeritus David Brion Davis,
has this little calculation associated with this issue.
Davis writes that in the
Continental Congress there had been five states in which
slavery was a major institution. So the Southern states in the
Continental Congress had about thirty-eight percent of the
seats in that Congress. Because of the Three-Fifths
Compromise, when the first U.S. Congress opened under the new
Constitution, Southern states now had
forty-five percent of the seats in the House,
so thirty-eight to forty-five is a significant slide.
Now that doesn’t stay ingrained
that way, because population increases in
the North and things change over time,
but certainly that’s one way in which you can see the impact of
that Three-Fifths Compromise. Now in a way that
Compromise–it’s a great segue into my lecture today–
it’s a great example of the larger dynamic of the period
that we’re focusing on here toward the end of the course.
Because, as we’ve been looking
at in the Constitutional Convention–
as we’re going to see today when we’re looking at
ratification– at the heart of the political
developments that we’re looking at in this period is compromise:
compromise between North and South;
compromise between big states and small states;
compromise between people who want to centralize power and
people who want strong state governments.
So basically what we’re looking
at in this period is Americans deciding where and how to invest
power, obviously a highly charged
decision that would have been impossible to make without a
string of compromises. And in a way,
as we’re going to be discussing today,
this is sort of a fundamental question at the heart of the
Revolution and its immediate aftermath.
Where should the nation invest
power? Where does power go?
So in a way,
if you look back to the beginning of the course,
think about the Revolution, think about some of the central
issues, you could say that the
Revolution certainly was about power.
It was a rebellion against what
many perceived as tyrannical power,
and that means a lot of things but to sum that all up in a
sentence, you could say that.
You could say that the 1770s
and then the 1780s show Americans trying to figure out
how to rebalance and reorganize power–
the power of state–that they strip away the British
administration and now they have to figure out where else to
place power and how to balance it.
And we’ve seen the Articles of
Confederation and now the Constitution,
which is again part of this ongoing dialogue trying to
figure out the balance of power in all sorts of different ways.
And it’s no wonder–if you
think about what I’ve already just talked about as far as the
Constitution is concerned– it’s no wonder that it demanded
a string of difficult and often experimental compromises.
Creating the Constitution
and–as we’ll see today–ratifying the
Constitution was a difficult process.
We tend to think of the outcome
and we don’t think of the process,
And I’m always reminded of this fact when I read an exchange of
letters between Jefferson and Madison,
and it’s actually written not long after the Constitution goes
into effect. I think it’s written in early
1790, and at that point Jefferson had
been overseas, he’d been in France on
diplomatic duty, so he’s off in the distance
knowing that they’re debating the Constitution in the United
States, but he’s on foreign shores,
lounging in salons, chatting about philosophical
issues with the French. Meanwhile, Madison is in the
Constitutional Convention slaving away,
and then he’s outside of it sort of hammering away at
ratification, so Madison’s clawing over the
issue of the Constitution; Jefferson’s kind of looking
from afar. So he writes this letter to
Madison early 1790 saying that no generation should be bound to
the actions of any previous generation.
It’s one of those Jefferson
letters in which he’s like: ‘I have an interesting idea,
let me share it with you,’ and he starts out with this sort of
idea about generations. Each generation is a distinct
thing and should never be bound by the one that came before–and
it has this famous line. Some of you may have heard it
already: “The earth belongs …
to the living,”
right?–that the living should be controlling things;
the dead hand of the past should not have weight in the
present. In typical Jefferson style he
then calculates what a generation is.
It’s not enough to say
generations are distinct. He says, Well,
how long is a generation anyway?
I will calculate this out.
Oh, a generation is nineteen
years’–by Thomas Jefferson. So he decides a generation is
nineteen years and then says to Madison, ‘So every nineteen
years we need a new Constitution.’
writing to the slaving-away-Constitution guy,
says, ‘Let’s do this every nineteen years.
I think that would be much
fairer. It wouldn’t bind the present to
the past.’ Now when I read that letter and
then I read Madison’s response, Madison is really tactful.
Madison’s a tactful guy,
and he’s tactful in his response,
but when you look beneath the surface of Madison’s reply,
I always feel like what you see there is this sustained howl of
disbelief, like: ‘What!?
Yeah, you try that next time,
Teej, and then you come back here and tell me you want to do
that in nineteen years. [laughter]
No.’ So Madison’s not happy about it but he actually is
tactful, and what he says to Jefferson
is, he praises Jefferson’s, quote, “many interesting
It’s like: ‘Thank you, Mr. Madison’–and then adds,
unfortunately, quote, they are “not in
all respects compatible with the course of human affairs,”
or in other words, real people don’t act that way
[laughs]– like Jefferson,
nice idea, not going to work in implementation.
That’s not for real life.
For real people,
it doesn’t work, but cute idea;
keep them coming. Like, it’s interesting.
We can just keep the
conversation going; we’re not doing another
Constitution in nineteen years. So that’s certainly one
compromise that Madison is not willing to sign on to,
but of course the compromises don’t end with the closing of
the Federal Convention. Creating the Constitution is a
major accomplishment. Now it has to be ratified.
There needed to be nine states
to ratify it for it to go into effect, and each state would
have its own ratifying convention to decide the issue.
Now things would have been
difficult enough if that was the only challenge at hand–
if all that they were facing was ratification debates in the
states– but the fact is,
there were a slew of things that could have gone wrong even
before we got to actual ratification.
For one thing,
the Confederation Congress might just disapprove of the
Constitution and refuse to send it on to the states.
It was entirely possible that
the Congress might have said, ‘You know, you didn’t just
amend the Articles. You wrote a new Constitution.
We don’t consider that valid.
We’re not going to send it
on’–and that would have been a little interesting moment.
It’s just as possible that
individual states might refuse to consider it for the same
reason. And even if some states did
consider this Constitution and did decide to ratify it,
if large influential states like Virginia or Massachusetts
or New York rejected the Constitution,
their influence might actually compel other states to follow
their example and vote against it.
So all of this is sort of
looming out there. It’s unclear if any of this is
going to happen, but for those who are really
supporting this new Constitution,
they really knew that they had a pretty big challenge facing
them. If the Constitution made it to
the states for ratification, if the states agreed to
consider it, then they had to worry about
the actual debate over whether this Constitution was a just,
trustworthy division of power. Now, the first horrible
possibility did not take place, and the Confederation Congress
passes on the Constitution to the states for consideration on
September 28, 1787, but still,
with the question of ratification looming,
clearly the fate of the Constitution is left hanging for
a good many months. And I mentioned last time I was
going to go back to Ezra Stiles, because his diary is useful and
wonderful– and I’m going to go right back
here to Ezra Stiles just for a few minutes.
Because his diary shows you one
man– certainly one elite,
highly educated, influential man with very
high-placed friends– but still one man who is
watching events unfold related to the Constitution,
and is trying to figure out what he thinks about them.
He’s interested to know what’s
happening. He’s not sure what he thinks
and he’s trying to figure this out.
So one thing that his diary
shows is that certainly he was intensely interested in whatever
the heck was going on in Philadelphia.
He didn’t know what was going
on in Philadelphia, but he really wanted to know.
And on June 19,
he apparently asked Yale College seniors to debate the
following question: “Whether the States acted
wisely in sending Delegates to the Gen.
Convention now sitting in
Philadelphia?” I don’t know what they’re
doing, but Yale students, debate amongst yourselves.
Do you think that was a good
idea? In November of 1787,
the question that he poses for Yale College seniors has
changed. Now he says,
Yale College seniors, debate for yourself:
“Whether it is expedient for the States to adopt the new
Constitution?” In late December,
some of his curiosity gets satisfied because he actually
gets to spend the night with Abraham Baldwin,
who had been a delegate in the Convention,
so this is his chance. There’s a guy who was there.
He’s going to really sort of
plug away at Baldwin, find out what really happened.
And at the end of the evening
this is what Stiles wrote in his diary:
“I have formed this as my Opinion.
That it is not the most perfect
Constitution yet 2. That it is a very good one,
& that it is advisable to adopt it.
That tho’ much of it will be
permanent & lasting, yet much of it will be
hereafter altered by future Revisions.
That the best one remains yet
to be investigated.” And then he goes on to add:
“When the Convention was proposed I doubted its
“–he’s really a guy for
Because I doubted whether our
wisest Men had yet attained Light eno’ to see &
discern the best, & what ought finally to
Neither did I think the People
were ripe for the Reception of the best one if it could be
investigated. And yet 3.
I did not doubt but Time &
future Experience would teach, open & lead us to the best
one. And tho’ we have got a much
better one than I expected, & a very good one,
yet my Judgt still remains as before.”
And then he gets very specific,
and he says, “I think there is not
Power enough yet given to Congress for firm
Government.” So he thinks about that on the
one hand. At the same time he worries
that surrendering too much power to this new government will end
up, quote, “prostratg the
Sovereignty of the particular States.”
On the one hand,
he worries that the President might become,
quote, “an uncontrollable & absolute Monarch.”
On the other hand,
he says, “I think– ” –First he says,
“I think the last as well guarded as possible”
so yeah, he might become a monarch,
but I think the Constitution did as well as it could to
prevent that from happening, and then goes on to say,
“I know not whether it is possible to vest Congress with
Laws, Revenues, &
Army & Navy, without endangering the Ruin of
the interior Powers & Liberties of the States.”
And that’s a long passage for
someone to put in his own diary, but what’s interesting about
that to me is you can see Stiles going back and forth.
He says it’s good but there’s
probably a better one; it’s better than I expected,
but somehow it’s not good enough;
it doesn’t give enough power to Congress, but maybe it gives too
much power and the states will be prostrated;
maybe the President is too powerful, but if we give some of
that power to congress maybe Congress will end up really
destroying the states. So you can see him there sort
of reasoning through what he thinks about the Constitution,
and in one way or another, it’s boiling down to the
balance of power; where should power be.
He’s not exactly sure where
power should be. He knows it’s the issue,
but he’s not quite sure how to find his way out.
So clearly–and Stiles is an
example of this– although the delegates of the
Constitutional Convention had agreed on a new form of
government, there was certainly not some
huge, sweeping national consensus on the best kind of
government for the new American nation.
So the ratification debates
throughout the states– except for Rhode Island,
which is not having a debate– but in the rest of the states,
the ones that are actually having big ratification debates,
these are really real debates. And often, these debates
focused on the question of power.
As suggested by Stiles,
one big question along these lines was: how do you divide
power between the national government and the states?
Patrick Henry of Virginia had
this to say about the Constitution,
even before he got past its first three words.
Patrick Henry is upset by the
first three words of the Constitution.
This doesn’t bode well for the
Virginia debate. Henry says,
“My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious
solicitude for the public welfare,
leads me to ask, who authorized them to speak
the language of, We, the People,
instead of We, the States?
States are the characteristics
and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not be agents
of this compact, it must be one great
consolidated national government.”
Samuel Adams is more concise,
but has the same idea. He also–those first three
words–He can’t get past the first three words.
He says, “As I enter the
Building I stumble at the Threshold.”
Constitution–We, the people?
We, the people?
What is that?
What does that suggest about
this government? They’re both basically asking,
what kind of a government is this?
It’s not a league of states,
a confederation of states. It doesn’t seem to be about the
states. It appears to be some kind of
new powerful national government linking itself with the American
people and potentially dismissing the importance of
individual states. In the minds of men like Henry
and Adams, if this was a really federal
constitution surely the document should begin with “we,
the states” as opposed to “we,
the people.” What they’re getting at–Henry
and Adams– in those kinds of statements is
one of the most unique aspects of the proposed Constitution,
and I think in a sense its most brilliant compromise.
And that’s the idea of
federalism: the idea that both the states and the national
government could have large areas of power with the federal
courts sort of acting as arbiters about the limits of
state and federal power. The real brilliance of
federalism is that it suggested that sovereignty could be
divided between two levels of government.
That was an interesting idea.
It was one that many people
didn’t believe could actually be put into play,
but it’s a brilliant suggestion, a really brilliant
compromise. For a population of people who
were worried about the birth of some kind of tyrannical
centralized national government, the concept of federalism at
least had some potential. On the other hand,
the idea of nationalism was a lot more frightening.
Nationalism suggests one big
national blob and the obliteration of states,
or as Stiles put it, the prostration of the states.
It’s interesting to note that
in the Constitution, the word “national”
does not appear– and as a matter of fact,
not only is the word “national”
not in the original Constitution,
but during the debates when someone put it in,
somebody else always took it out.
No, no, we’re not talking about
national. It’s federal.
It’s all federal.
It’s not the scary big national
thing. It’s a federal Constitution.
And that’s why,
of course, the people who are defending the Constitution call
themselves Federalists, not nationalists,
and thus the opponents call themselves Anti-Federalists.
So federalism is a really
brilliant compromise in this battle over where to invest
power, but obviously it did not solve
all questions, and for some people it didn’t
even solve any of the questions. The ongoing ratification debate
was actually really fierce. And since by default we end up
sort of all siding with the Federalists,
let’s look for a moment at the Anti-Federalists and the sorts
of things that they were arguing in these debates throughout all
of the states. For one thing,
like everyone else, they are concerned with the
placement of power. They worry that this new
national executive is going to be a tyrant and eventually a
king. They worry that state rights,
state boundaries, state constitutions will be
violated by a tyrannical national government.
They fear that the
Constitution’s going to foster the creation of a standing army,
which everyone of course believes to be the tool of
tyranny. They fear that some kind of
overbearing aristocracy is going to take over and repress the
common man. They fear a lack of proper
representation. They fear that they’re not
going to have the right sort of a voice, or any voice,
in this new centralized government.
When you read about these fears
in their original form– and of course throughout this
period and throughout all of these debates they’re writing
newspaper essays; they’re writing pamphlets;
they’re giving speeches. This is a literal debate in
print and in person, and when you read some of these
Anti-Federalist essays and pamphlets,
you can really see how some of them are directly relatable to
the Revolution just fought and hopefully won.
I guess in their mind maybe it
hadn’t been won yet because it depends on what happens with
this government. They’re talking about tyranny.
They’re talking about monarchy.
They’re talking about violated
liberties. They’re talking about
aristocracy. They’re talking about unjust
representation. You could sort of draw a line
and understand where these fears come from.
Just listen to how some
Anti-Federalists actually expressed these fears.
One writer wrote that the
Constitution was, quote, “the most odious
system of tyranny that was ever projected.”
who is always useful for wonderful quotes,
in the Virginia Convention says that by giving so much power to
a new national government, quote, “the tyranny of
Philadelphia– the Federal Convention–may be
like the tyranny of George III.”
You can’t draw a more direct
link than that. Right?
George III, tyranny–directly harkening right back to the
Revolution. And for many people these
arguments really rang true. Now of course,
in the end the Federalists proved successful,
this despite the fact that they really were promoting a pretty
radical change of government, and there are a good number of
reasons why they’re successful. I’m just going to mention a few
here, and one of them in a sense is
really obvious but makes a lot of sense that it acts in their
favor, and that is:
the Federalists are really national-minded,
so they’re actually thinking beyond the bounds of their
states and it makes them much more likely to be able to create
some kind of united publicity campaign to argue on a national
level in a way that perhaps Anti-Federalists couldn’t or
wouldn’t. Also one reason why the
Federalists prove successful is partly because the
Anti-Federalists don’t offer any alternative to the Constitution.
They critique what’s there but
they don’t offer an alternative suggestion,
so the debate is criticism and the Federalists defending and
countering, criticism and the Federalists
defending and countering. That’s a very particular kind
of debate. If the Anti-Federalists had
come forward with another suggestion, it would have been a
very different kind of debate. In some ways you might argue
that the Federalist victory was something of an Anti-Federalist
default. As South Carolina
Anti-Federalist Aedanus Burke put it after the fact,
“We had no principle of concert or union.”
We were sort of all objecting
on our own and we didn’t have any unified campaign.
Or, as Madison put it,
I think in a little bit of an exaggeration,
the Anti-Federalists, quote, “had no plan
whatever. They looked no farther than to
put a negative on the Constitution and return
So maybe that’s a little
exaggerated, but in fact there was no
obvious concrete alternative presented by the
Anti-Federalists and that really was a fundamental weakness in
their position. This does not mean,
however, that there were no good arguments against the
Constitution, and the best proof of that is
the Federalist essays, which you’re going to be
reading this week, because those essays aren’t
just explaining the Constitution;
they’re defending the Constitution.
And they’re defending it
against this sea of fears and accusations and all these sort
of wild ideas floating around about what might happen or
what’s implied or what’s suggested or what’s allowable in
this new government. The Federalist essays
were Hamilton’s idea, and Hamilton invited his
nationalist buddy, James Madison,
to join him in the effort and they also invited John Jay to
take part– and John Jay ended up getting
sick, so he wrote a few essays and
then he dropped out so, as I’m sure you well know,
most of them are written by Madison and Hamilton.
The Federalist was not
the only printed defense of the Constitution.
There were lots of them.
There was obviously–As I said,
it’s a big print debate, but the Federalist was
something that was written with really big ambitions because its
authors really essentially were creating a broad,
comprehensive, step-by-step defense of the
Constitution, and they really hoped that by
swaying the state of New York in favor of ratification,
maybe they would bring other states like Virginia along in
its wake. The essays were all signed
“Publius.” The authors all wrote under the
same pseudonym because they actually wanted the essays not
to seem like the crafty arguments of two really leading
nationalists who were going to say anything to get us to sign
on to the Constitution. They wanted to suggest that
these were just even-handed, rational ideas that were sort
of generally out in the public sphere.
Now of course among insiders,
people figured out who the authors were,
even though supposedly no one’s supposed to know.
Who can that be?
People figured it out pretty
quickly and sometimes the authors helped people along.
And there’s an anecdote about
Hamilton– I went digging to see if I
could find ultimate verification and I can’t find ultimate
verification, but I’m going to offer it
anyway because there is a supposed witness to the story,
but people aren’t sure whether to believe the witness.
At any rate,
Hamilton–supposedly the day before his fatal duel with Aaron
Burr– paid a call on a friend,
a good eighteenth-century name, Egbert Benson.
He went to visit Egbert Benson,
who was a lawyer, and supposedly one of Benson’s
law clerks answered the door, said that he would go find
Benson, walked off to find Benson,
and as he came back, he said he saw Hamilton in
Benson’s library put something in a book and put the book up on
the shelf. And the clerk said,
‘Mr. Benson’s not here,’ and Hamilton said,
‘Thank you,’ and left. So of course the guy is like:
I wonder what that was? Right?
So he goes over to the shelf
and he pulls down the book. He wants to see what it is.
And supposedly what it was is a
piece of paper in Hamilton’s handwriting in which he’d
written all of the Federalist essays that were his.
the night before the duel when he’s like: ‘got my checklist of
things I’d better do in case I die tomorrow:
number one, get credit for Federalist
Now it’s unclear whether that actually happened or didn’t
happen. The guy–The fellow who saw it
in later years said he did see it,
and said he saw the piece of paper,
and said the piece of paper at some point was given to the New
York Public Library, but then nobody quite knows
where it is in the New York Public Library.
So it’s unclear whether it
really happened. People–Some people at the time
insisted it really did. Whether or not it really did,
the fact is that actually the people who wrote it did care
about it and did care about which ones they wrote,
and we don’t entirely know who wrote which in some cases.
We know some are Hamilton
essays and some are Madison essays,
and then there are some where it’s blurrier and historians
argue– give one guy credit or the
other guy credit over who– And I think that’s
partly–well, partly because they were
rushing, but also partly because in some
cases they probably were working together on some or sharing
things. The humbling thing to remember
when you read the Federalist this week–
and this actually should really mean something to any student–
is that many of them are first drafts.
Okay. Those are rough drafts.
That just makes me want to cry
as a writer. It’s like oh,
[laughs] why can’t my rough drafts look
like that? These guys were writing for
newspapers, so they were in a hurry,
sometimes literally dashing something off and getting it to
the newspaper immediately. So they’re writing these in a
hurry. They don’t have time for a lot
of revision. That to me is an amazingly
humbling thought. All told, there were
eighty-five Federalist essays.
As I said, they’re published in New York newspapers.
The thought is they’re going to
sway the New York ratification debate, and they appear between
October 1787 and May of 1788. And then later,
in June of 1788, they get put out in book form.
And then obviously they migrate
wherever they migrate to. Lots of other people read the
Federalist. Now, as suggested by its title,
the Federalist — while it did demonstrate a lot
of things about the new Constitution–
it did have one overriding argument,
and that was: the benefits of federalism.
Not nationalism–and they’re
sure to stress that throughout all of the essays;
we’re not talking about nationalism.
still important–the subtext of the calming component of the
Federalist essays. A federal government would
energize the government without prostrating the states or
trampling on the American people;
that’s the compromise of federalism.
And, as I mentioned at some
point earlier, in an earlier lecture,
to demonstrate just how badly this government needed to be
energized, the Federalist essays
show again and again the disaster that would reign if the
Articles of Confederation were allowed to continue.
And at some point,
I did talk about the sort of ax job that the Federalist
essays do on the Articles of Confederation.
They really want to,
because they have to prove that the Articles are so bad that of
course this new Constitution is the perfect thing.
It makes sense.
You have to move in this
direction. So in New York and elsewhere,
the ratification debates wore on, states proceeding at
different paces. But there is one thing that
emerged from these debates on the part of the
Anti-Federalists, and this actually is a specific
suggestion on their part, a specific idea about something
that has to be there. Basically, throughout the
states one thing that Anti-Federalists consistently
demanded was some kind of guarantee of personal liberties,
some kind of a declaration of rights like those that existed
in many state constitutions– something that would protect
personal liberties in the same document that seemed to be
investing this new government with so much power.
So in essence,
the Anti-Federalists want a bill of rights.
Now from our vantage point,
a bill of rights just seems like an unquestionably good
We love our Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights is good.
Why would the Federalists not
want a bill of rights? But the problem is,
some Federalists did have problems with this idea of a
bill of rights. For one thing,
they claimed that the entire Constitution,
by providing a well-framed government that had checks and
balances and government by election,
in a sense you could argue that that document was so framed and
the government was so checked and balanced that it was in and
of itself a sort of bill of rights;
it was a controlled government. They also said,
the federal government has enumerated powers in this
document. So in other words,
a power that is not given to the government is not owned by
the government. Why do we need a bill of rights
saying well, we need to protect power of the press?
We haven’t given power of the
press to the national government, so why do we need
suddenly to mention it in a bill of rights?
Some Federalists even argued
that if we start to write things down–put rights into
writing–we might actually imply something bad;
we might actually imply–If we try to define the freedom of
press, freedom of religion and put it
into words, maybe the implication will be
that in some way or another the national government actually
does have some power over those things.
Maybe once we get into the sea
of rights, we might lead people to be able
to conclude things about that government down the road that we
might not want them to conclude. But the Anti-Federalists had a
pretty powerful argument in favor of a bill of rights.
It was a multileveled argument,
but one part of it was particularly hard to argue with,
and that is: any republican government,
any small “r” republican government,
ought to do everything that it could do to keep its citizens
aware of their rights, including something like
listing them as amendments to the Constitution.
In other words,
the Anti-Federalists say, ‘Well, in a republic,
the people need to know their rights.
They need to have them in
writing. So of course we should have a
bill of rights so that the American public knows what their
rights are.’ In the end, it was only with
the promise that a list of rights would be amended and
added to the Constitution that it was ultimately ratified.
And so one by one,
the states debated, and then over time decided to
ratify the Constitution. I think again,
as with so many things about this period and the Constitution
debate, we don’t tend to think of it as
a real fight or debate or controversy.
We sort of see things churning
along and we imagine: ratification of the
Constitution equals a bunch of guys in a room signing pieces of
paper like: ah, it’s ratified,
the end, now let’s have a government.’
But in fact,
people were really anxiously watching this–and curious.
And are states going to ratify?
How many will ratify?
Is this going to happen?
Won’t it happen?
What happens if only half of
them ratify? This is something that people
all over the United States were watching and wondering what was
going to happen. Here Ezra Stiles helps us out
one more time because he put in his diary every time he heard
that a state had ratified the Constitution.
So in the midst of everything
else in his diary, you’ll see–like,
on January 9,1788, he writes that a courier raced
from Hartford to New Haven and made the entire trip in a mere
hour and six minutes, which–Actually,
since it takes–what?– like 45 minutes by car to go to
Hartford, an hour and six minutes is
pretty good for a horse I think, [laughter]
so that guy really raced to announce to New Haven that
Connecticut had ratified the Constitution.
He puts that down and he
clearly was impressed with the speed of the rider.
On February 11,
New Haven gets the news that Massachusetts ratified.
Stiles puts this in his diary
and he adds: Bells were rung throughout the city and cannon
were discharged” So now clearly,
Connecticut has signed on; they’re watching to see who
else is signing on and when someone else does sign on,
there’s a celebration. At the end of June,
Stiles noted that at about 1:30 in the afternoon–
and I love when they note the precise time,
because then you know it’s something they believed to be
significant. At 1:30 this afternoon,
New Haven received the news that New Hampshire had
ratified–and that–New Hampshire is the ninth state.
So what that means is that now
the Constitution could go into effect.
And as Stiles described it,
“As soon as the News arrived the four Bells in the
City were set a Ringing, & the foederal Flag
displayed and foederal Discharges of Canon.”
What is actually a federal
discharge of cannon? I don’t know what a federal–I
never — I typed that out without stopping to think what a
federal discharge of cannon is. But there was a federal
discharge of cannon “– & Rejoycing”–
[laughs] general rejoicing in New
Haven– like: ‘yay, the Constitution
has kicked in; thank you, New Hampshire.’
Meanwhile, throughout this
period, Stiles still had Yale College seniors debating
constitutional issues. [laughs]
If you were not interested in politics at this point at Yale
College, you were in deep trouble.
He had them debate:
“Whether it had been better to refer the new
Constitution to the Ratificn by Town Meetings or a Plurality of
the personal Votes of all the Freemen of the United
States?” Now that’s kind of interesting,
actually. That’s kind of a radical thing
for him to ask the students to debate.
Or whether the President of
Congress–the President of Congress?–“the President
… ought to be visited with an
independt Power of Commandg the American Army?”
If you’re curious about what
other things Stiles has people debating in addition to random
constitutional issues, I just have a little sampling
here to give you a sense of what it would have been like to be a
senior at Yale College in 1788 and 1789.
“Whether the Breakg up of the Roman Empire by the Goths
& Vandals was prejudicial to the Progress of
Can you imagine doing that one day and then the next day:
and now [laughs] let’s talk about the President.
“Whether the Scriptures are divinely inspired?”;
“Whether good Policy is
ever inconsistent with Justice?”;
and “Whether all mankd
descended from Adam?” Okay.
That’s a wide-ranging bunch of
things they’re debating. I love the fact that Stiles
always puts that in his diary, so it’s actually fascinating
just to read through and see what students were set to
discuss at a given time. Okay.
So we’ve seen a national debate
over a new Constitution. We’ve seen a debate taking
place between people who by no means had an absolute consensus
about what kind of government should be put into place.
Given that this was a national
debate, what does it show us about the state of the nation at
the time? What does it really suggest
about the new nation and its principles?
Well, certainly for one thing,
underneath all of the disagreement and the wrangling
and the arguing, there was some consensus.
both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that a
small “r” republican government was the
general aim and goal– a government based on popular
sovereignty, on the will of the people–a
government that placed the ultimate power in the hands of
the people. So that’s a general consensus.
I’m going to talk in a moment
about what that means, but certainly in a general way
people could agree on that. Americans also could generally
agree that this was an experiment in government;
that it was something unique; that they were experimenting in
the possibility of having people sit down and deliberately create
a just government grounded on the rights and will of the
populace. And to communicate this,
to get this across, I’m going to read something.
I don’t think I’ve read this
before. Have I–I don’t think I’ve read
the first paragraph or the first couple sentences from the first
Federalist essay. I went digging back into other
lectures and I don’t think I’ve done it yet,
and if I have you’re going to have to listen to it twice,
but I don’t think I have. And I tend to read these couple
sentences in a lot of my classes because I think they really
capture this idea about experimentation that’s looming
over what they’re doing at the time,
this sense that they really are deciding something major,
not just in the Constitution that they’re creating but also
in the process by which they’re creating it–
that the fact that they’re deliberating,
debating, and then creating, and then stepping back to allow
it to go into effect, that also is something that
they see as major. So this is from within the
first paragraph of Federalist No.
1 by Hamilton:
“It has been frequently remarked,
that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this
country, by their conduct and example,
to decide the important question,
whether societies of men are really capable or not,
of establishing good government from reflection and choice,
or whether they are forever destined to depend for their
political constitutions, on accident and force….
The crisis, at which we are
arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the aera in which
that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the
part we shall act, may, …
deserve to be considered as the
general misfortune of mankind.”
That’s a big statement.
He is literally saying:
the United States is deciding for all time if you can sit and
deliberate and create a just government–
or not, and if we do something stupid,
the answer would appear to be not–for all time.
So this experiment is not just
an experiment, but it’s one that to people at
the time actually means something.
They feel that they’re proving
something in this experiment that they’re undertaking.
It has real consequences.
Now that said,
of course even with the ratification of the
Constitution, all kinds of questions are
still looming about exactly how this experiment was going to
play out, or indeed if it would survive
at all. And wrapped up in this question
about what’s going to happen with the government is a deeper
question about whether the promise of the Revolution is
actually going to be fulfilled. The Revolution has all of this
promise attached to it. There’s all of this debate
about how to bring that kind of promise to life.
Here is one try.
It’s a constitution.
We’re going to put it into
effect. And people now have to step
back and see if it’s going to work–
and many, many people are absolutely not convinced that
it’s going to fulfill all that promise that was unleashed by
the Revolution. It’s one thing to assign power
in a document, and it’s another thing to
really bring that document to life.
If you think about our
Constitution, it’s a pretty short document;
it’s pretty brief. It’s a framework.
It doesn’t go into lots of
detail. So there’s a lot of things that
had to be fleshed out and worked out once that government went
into effect. And in Thursday’s lecture,
I’m going to touch on some of that.
I’m going to talk a little bit
about how this begins to play out in the 1790s and what that
suggests about the legacy of the Revolution overall.
I will stop there.
I will see you on Thursday,
our last class.