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THE MAKING OF THE CONSTITUTION.
OLIVER H. DEAN, OF KANSAS CITY, Mo.
In the last essay in the Federalist, Mr. Hamilton makes the following quotation from Hume's Essay on the Rise of Arts and Sciences:
"To balance a large state or society, whether monarchical or republican, under general laws is a work of so great difficulty that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection to effect it. The judgments of many must unite in the work; experience must guide their labor; time must bring it to perfection; and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes which they inevitably fall into in their first trials and experiments."
Mr. Hamilton then proceeded to refer to the then present dangers and conditions, and in doing so said:
"These judicious reflections contain a lesson in moderation to all the sincere lovers of the Union, and ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, and perpetual alienation of the States from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from time and experience. It may be in me a defect of political fortitude, but I acknowledge that I cannot entertain an equal tranquility with those who affect to treat the dangers of a longer continuance in our present situation as imaginary. A nation without a national government is, in my view, an awful spectacle. The establishment of a constitution in time of profound peace by the voluntary consent of a whole people is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling and anxiety."
The great work of the convention of 1787 for which IIamilton labored so heroically, was accepted by the American people, but the magnitude of that work and the difficulties which encom
passed it and its enormous value were not at that period fully appreciated, and perhaps they are not now.
Goldwin Smith has generously recorded his conviction that to the Anglo-Saxon the foundation of the American Republic is the grand achievement of his race.
William H. Seward, in his eloquent eulogy on John Adams, said many years ago that it was the greatest event in the secular history of the world.
"It did not disentangle the confused theory of the origin of government, but cut through the bonds of power exercised by prescription at a blow, thus directing and immediately affecting the opinions and the actions of men in every part of the civilized world."
The truth of that statement is many times more manifest today than when it was made. There came with it not only constitutional and ecclesiastical changes, but a new doctrine and a new belief as to the origin, extent and authority of govern
May I then ask you to bear with me while I consider some of the circumstances and conditions which have relation to the creation of that greatest document written in the world's history -the American Constitution? And may I also briefly discuss some of the actors in that greatest of all political dramas?
When Hamilton said that they were risking anarchy, civil war, and the perpetual alienation of the States, and perhaps a military despotism inaugurated by some victorious demagogue, he did not overstate the situation.
The government represented by the Articles of Confederation failed to command the respect or confidence of the people at home or of nations abroad. It was nothing more than a league between independent States, and the Congress created by it, a general council for the measures to be adopted by them. It could create debts, but it had no means of raising funds for their payment. It could make treaties, but not punish their violation. It could not protect foreign commerce, nor settle the disputes which were arising between the States.
There were constant conflicts and rivalries growing out of
interstate commerce which created state jealousies. The country was suffering from its damaged commerce upon the seas, the impotency of its courts, the enormous evils growing out of a debased currency and the tremendous burdens of debts created by Congress under the Confederation and by the states and by private individuals in the seven years' war for independence. In Massachusetts, a rebellion had broken out and, in the opinion of many, Congress had no power to suppress it. During the war for independence, the Confederation was held together by outside pressure. But at its conclusion it was in the highest danger of falling to pieces from its inherent weaknesses and deficiencies.
It did not fulfil the aspirations nor perform the functions of a national government. The states extended along the east coast nine hundred miles, and between them there was but little unity of feeling. When the Insurrection broke out in Massachusetts, the whole country was startled. Washington at Mount Vernon, engaged in the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, became instantly alarmed. He declared:
"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 constitutions of our own choice and making, and now we are unsheathing the sword 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 the illusions of a dream."
The authority represented by Congress under the Articles of Confederation had fallen so low that, in October, 1785, Washington wrote that the Confederation seemed "to be little more than a shadow without substance and Congress a nugatory body." In a letter to Jay, speaking of the requisitions of Congress on the States, he said:
"Requisitions are little better than a jest or byword throughout the land. If you tell the legislatures of the states that they have violated the treaty of peace and invaded the prerogatives of the Confederation, they will laugh in your face."
Madison, in his argument for the adoption of the Constitution before the Virginia convention, said:
"The Confederation is so notoriously feeble that foreign nations are unwilling to form any treaties with us. They are apprised that our general government cannot perform any of its engagements, but that they may be violated at pleasure by any of the states. Our violation of treaties already entered into proves this truth unequivocally. No nation will, therefore, make any stipulations with Congress conceding any advantages of importance to us, and they will be the more averse to entering into negotiations with us as the imbecility of our government enables them to derive many advantages from our trade without granting us any in return. But were this country united by proper bonds in addition to our other great advantages, we could form more beneficial treaties with foreign states. But this can never be done without a change in our system. Were we not laughed at by the minister of that nation from which we may be able yet to extort some more salutary measures for this country? Were we not told it was necessary to temporize until the government acquired consistency? Will any nation relinquish national advantages to us? You will be greatly disappointed if you expect any such good effects from this contemptible system."
And, after mentioning the amount of debts due to different. foreign nations, Mr. Madison said:
"We have been obliged to borrow money even to pay the interest of our debts. This is a ruinous and most disgraceful expedient. Is this a situation on which America can rely for security and happiness?” Elliott's Debates, 135.)
Washington, in 1785, two years before the convention met,
"The world must feel and see that the Union, or the states individually, are sovereign as best suits their purposes. In a word, that we are one nation to-day and thirteen to-morrow. Who will treat with us on such terms?"*
The public men who struggled for the independence of the colonies and the soldiers of the continental army were inspired with the ambition for national unity, but in some localities they did not exert a potential influence. State ambitions and the nar
*Marshall's Life of Washington, p. 67. Life of Hamilton, 8, p. 331.
row conception of the supreme need of the thirteen states as a whole, were threatening to produce a complete disintegration of the government.
The convention was fixed to meet in Philadelphia on May 2nd, 1787. Sixty-five delegates were appointed; fifty-five attended. The convention did not begin its work for lack of a quorum until May 25th. Many left before the convention completed its labors on September 17th, 1787. New Hampshire did not appoint its delegates until the latter part of July. Rhode Island was not represented nor had it had representatives for some time in the Federal Congress, nor did that state ratify the constitution until May 29th, 1790. Two of the three New York delegates left the convention in July. The Governor of that state "had unreservedly declared that no good was to be expected from the deliberations at Philadelphia. That the Confederation on more full experiment might be found to answer all the purposes of the union" (6 Bancroft's History of the United States, 259). After that, Hamilton remained, but he had no vote.
Among the fifty-five members of the convention, nine were graduates of Princeton, four of Yale, three of Harvard, two of Columbia, one of Pennsylvania, and five, six or seven, according to Bancroft, had been connected with William and Mary's. Scotland sent one of her sons, James Wilson, who had been taught at three of her Universities, and before he became a lawyer was a distinguished classical scholar and teacher in a College in Philadelphia. Glasgow had assisted to train another. One had been a student at Christ's College, Oxford, and he and two others had been students of law in the Middle Temple (6 Bancroft, History of the U. S., 211).
Only thirty-nine of the delegates signed their names to the greatest writing in the world's political history. Three of the delegates refused to sign.
Among the delegates were Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Franklin, James Madison, Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris,