A few years ago, I was witness to a lecture in which the lecturer claimed that those who voted against the Constitution in the ratification process should no longer be considered American. In other words, only those who supported the vote in favor of the Constitution by actually casting a vote are legitimate. Needless to write, I was aghast at the speaker’s claim. And yet, her words have stayed with me. Mostly, I think, because her claimed intrigued me—a puzzle of some sort. Not because I agree with her views, but because I suspect their source is a bizarre and twisted kind of nationalism that simply eludes my way of thinking.
This speaker came on campus armed with serious credentials and sponsored by a well-respected organization. Indeed, she served as a spokesman for that very organization, trying to recruit faculty as well as student support.
In the years—probably six or more—since I heard that talk, I’ve pondered who could be considered an American by her claims? Obviously, all Anti-Federalists would be out. There goes George Mason, Mercy Otis Warren, the Federal Farmer and Old Whig, and roughly half of all those who could actually vote in the ratification process. But, what about those who would’ve gladly voted one way or another but were ineligible because of gender, skin color, or property qualifications? Do they count? Until the day he died, John Taylor of Caroline suspected the Constitution as a trick by the bankers and the elites to control the government. Is he out? What about all of the people who from time to time worked and succeeded in amending the Constitution? Are they out? That is, by default, are they wrong because they didn’t see the Constitution as perfect? That would rule out Abraham Lincoln, whom I suspect this young woman admired immensely.
But, back to the Founding. It’s hard not to realize just how crucial the Anti-Federalists were to the ratification of the Constitution, even in their very opposition. As The Imaginative Conservative‘s own Bruce Frohnen has demonstrated so ably, we can only understand the ratification of the Constitution and the adoption of the Bill of Rights as a pre-ideological movement. The sides didn’t polarize so much that various armies and militias formed in opposition. There was no bloodletting in the streets, and pro-Constitution gangs didn’t terrorize the homes of their opposition. As Prof. Frohnen so beautifully notes in his work on the founding, the two sides had far more in common than not. They might fight like crazed partisans during actual debate, but they all went out together after the debates and celebrated their friendship in Madeira.
There are other problems with this young woman’s claims as well. Her view of history is one of inevitability and pre-destination. The Constitution was foreordained in God’s plan, if we take her seriously, and those who opposed it were merely fighting the natural order of things, trying to thwart what was to come. In this, she sounds like a right-wing version of a Marxist. Perhaps in her heart of hearts, she believes that the Anti-Federalist movement should be consigned to the “dustbin of history.”
I also hear the words of another Imaginative Conservative, John Willson: There was no “Founding.” There were many foundings, some overlapping and some not. There were many persons involved, many ideas discussed, and many institutions modified at a variety of levels. The thinkers who inspired the Revolutionaries (a term Prof. Willson would reject) varied as well. While John Locke might have been crucial in inspiring the Americans to write and defend the Declaration of Independence, he had almost nothing to say about creating a new Constitution. Yet, as republicans, they never forgot Cicero, Livy, or Tacitus, whether declaring independence or thinking about the Bill of Rights. Further, they loved the common law, an “institution” that possessed origins beyond human memory. No symmetry, no perfection—just human greatness, human failings, and a rag-tag tangle of Gothic desires.
Every fourth semester, I have the grand privilege of teaching the junior-senior level survey course, “Founding of the American Republic.” I begin in 1748 (with the Virginians setting their eye on Ohio), and I end in 1806 (with Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery returning to St. Louis). Every time I teach the era, I find new personalities, new events, and new ideas that never cease to amaze me. Yet, my own study of the period leads me to accept Prof. Frohnen’s and Prof. Willson’s claims more and more. There was no “Founding,” as the era in what was and what would become the United States was both anti-ideological and ante-ideological. The Americans were not French and no secret handshake will reveal the secret behind “the Founding.” No secret six will reveal the true meaning of “the Founding.” It was a moment, and it was a movement, but the latter had a million different parts, some that acted in harmony and many that operated in conflict.
And, in its confusion and chaos, we should rejoice. The messiness sharpened the best of its aspects while dulling the worst. As a moment in time in which virtue mattered (or, at least was not openly mocked), of course the best came out of even the mediocre. The best throve, but even the worst either shut up or contributed what they could. It was a time in which ideas and actions mattered, and it was a Stoic time in which a grievance was solved by fierce debate, not whimpering, and, if necessary, by bravado and not cowardice.
And, to my mind, they were all American, whether they voted a certain way or not.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.