In one of the single most interesting moments during the constitutional convention of 1787, a discussion arose—really for the first time with any great seriousness—about the issue of slavery in the West.
How the republic might expand would, of course, help define the republic itself.
The admission of slaves was a most grating circumstance to his mind, and he believed would be so to a great part of the people of America. He had not made a strenuous opposition to it heretofore because he had hoped that this concession would have produced a readiness which had not been manifested, to strengthen the General Government and to mark a full confidence in it. The Report under consideration had by the tenor of it, put an end to all those hopes. In two great points the hands of the Legislature were absolutely tied. The importation of slaves could not be prohibited—exports could not be taxed. Is this reasonable? What are the great objects of the General System?
1. Defense against foreign invasion.
2. Defense against internal sedition.
Shall all the States then be bound to defend each; and shall each be at liberty to introduce a weakness which will render defense more difficult? Shall one part of the U. S. be bound to defend another part, and that other part be at liberty not only to increase its own danger, but to withhold the compensation for the burden? If slaves are to be imported shall not the exports produced by their labor, supply a revenue the better to enable the General Government to defend their Masters? There was so much inequality and unreasonableness in all this, that the people of the Northern States could never be reconciled to it. No candid man could undertake to justify it to them. He had hoped that some accommodation would have taken place on this subject; that at least a time would have been limited for the importation of slaves. He never could agree to let them be imported without limitation & then be represented in the National Legislature. Indeed he could so little persuade himself of the rectitude of such a practice, that he was not sure he could assent to it under any circumstances. At all events, either slaves should not be represented, or exports should be taxable.
Mr. Sherman regarded the slave trade as iniquitous; but the point of representation having been settled after much difficulty & deliberation, he did not think himself bound to make opposition; especially as the present article as amended did not preclude any arrangement whatever on that point in another place of the Report.
Mr. Madison objected to 1 for every 40.000 inhabitants as a perpetual rule. The future increase of population if the Union shd be permanent, will render the number of Representatives excessive.
Mr. Ghorum. It is not to be supposed that the Government will last so long as to produce this effect. Can it be supposed that this vast Country including the Western territory will 150 years hence remain one nation?
Mr Elseworth. If the Government should continue so long, alterations may be made in the Constitution in the manner proposed in a subsequent article.
Mr. Sherman and Mr. Madison moved to insert the words “not exceeding,” before the words “1 for every 40.000.
Mr. Gov. Morris moved to insert “free” before the word inhabitants. Much he said would depend on this point. He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed.
Especially noteworthy is Nathaniel Ghorum’s (of Mass.) take, which was not disputed. Will the government last long enough to affect the very character of a people? No, the founders at the convention presumed, it would not.
That the founding generation believed the Constitution of 1787 to be impermanent and transitory should not be totally shocking to the present-day reader. Many, however, in the Tea Party and in certain schools of political theory persist in the ahistorical argument that the Constitution is timeless and absolute, a document written in stone, or framing the golden apple of the Declaration as though given to us by Father Abraham.
From a practical and maybe even from a philosophical standpoint, I agree that the Constitution is an excellent document, and it should be ideally the touchstone of every debate we have in this country, especially if we presume to argue with one another on any kind of objective basis.
Still, we would do a disservice to the founding generation, to the republic, and to the very notion of republicanism itself to believe that once institutionalized, the Constitution—no matter how abused, misused, and mocked—must remain the only touchstone by which we govern ourselves.
In the same way that the current executive abuses his powers as commander in chief, so Thomas Jefferson abused the executive by purchasing Louisiana. Whether the purchase of Louisiana (and I’m not prepared to give it back!) was good or bad in and of itself is a different matter. In no way was it constitutional.
By its very nature, a republic, though the best of governments, was also the most fragile. As Polybius had argued in the Histories, every republic is born, experiences middle age and corruption, and, finally, dies.
Because a republic demands so much of its citizens, it has proven itself a difficult government to maintain. Virtue, after all, resides in excellence (and, therefore the exceptional) and not in mediocrity.
In his excellent, if at times flawed, account, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood writes:
This democratic society was not the society the revolutionary leaders had wanted or expected. No wonder, then, that those of them who lived on into the early decades of the nineteenth century expressed anxiety over what they had wrought. Although they tried to put as good a face as they could on what had happened, they were bewildered, uneasy, and in many cases deeply disillusioned. Indeed, a pervasive pessimism, a fear that their revolutionary experiment in republicanism was not working out as they had expected, runs through the later writings of the founding fathers. All the major revolutionary leaders died less than happy with the results of the Revolution. [pg. 365]
Certainly, we would have a hard time disagreeing with the pessimism of the founders, should we be honest. Is it possible to reform and revive a document that’s been dead since at least 1945 (the last year we had a constitutional war) and perhaps all the way back to 1801.
We can, for the sake of argument, stick to the present. Executive agencies are not constitutional, national security agencies grow like weeds, and the debt on the heads of us, our children, and our grandchildren is beyond comprehension.
Yet, we distract ourselves debating whether or not gays should be married!
At what point does defending the principles of the Constitution mean giving up on the very Constitution itself? Perhaps the spirit of the Constitution can arise in some area of the current United States, or perhaps it will arise in some foreign land or in some distant time.
The loss of the Constitution is not synonymous with the loss of the republic or even with the loss of the spirit of the republic. I have felt that republican spirit very much alive in Kansas, in Nebraska, in North Dakota, in Montana, in Wyoming, and in Texas.
A republic—whether of the here and now or the eternal republic of the Cosmopolis of Cicero or Augustine’s City of God—is so much greater than the Constitution of the United States.
Forcibly attaching one to the other does a great disservice to each. With its emphasis on virtue and the commonwealth, a republic might very well have a religious element to it. But, the Constitution is a set of rules on a piece of paper. It is not holy, and it is not sacred.
If we truly love the Founding, prudence and justice might very dictate that we admit that what we once had is lost and begin the extremely difficult task of rebuilding.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.