Our Founders: How Did They Do It?

"Oh, leave them alone, They'll fight to the bone, And leave naught but their tails behind 'em." Punch, 1846

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—this remarkable assertion begins the Declaration of Independence as written by the founders of our country in 1776 after considerable heated debate and 11th hour compromises on wording.

Some few years later, in 1789, the framers of the constitution began extended and bitter debate that at times approached or exceeded the limits of polite argument to write the U. S. Constitution for ratification by the people.

The ratification by the 13 colonies was unanimous, but not without more serious debate and tense voting by delegates. The last state to ratify, Rhode Island, voted Yes by a marginal tally of 34 to 32. Our country’s founders did not agree on how to organize their new nation, but they managed to get the job done.

The current impasse in Washington, on weighty issues to be sure, does not do the memory of our founders proud. At times members of either party look and act like the famous Kilkenny Cats in the old limerick:

There were once two cats of Kilkenny.
Each thought there was one cat too many.
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
‘Til, (excepting their nails,
And the tips of their tails,)
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.

Is that how the current rancorous debate must end? I hope not.

How did the framers manage to overcome their differences and compromise to create our constitution? For background on that timely topic, I turned to Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996) by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jack N. Rakove of Stanford University.

The cover of the book boldly declares that this history is: “A deeply satisfying account of the political world from which the United States Constitution issued.”—The New York Times Book Review. The answers to my question must be in this book.

In the lexicon of American politics, writes Rakove, few words evoke as ambivalent a response as compromise. Compromise means fairness to some and moral failure and defeat to others. Rakove adds:

“It suggests a preference for consensus over confrontation, a willingness to meet opponents halfway rather than strive for ideological purity.
[…]
Compromise, in all its ambivalence, is a staple theme of most narrative accounts of the Federal Convention of 1787, and with good reason. In the end, the framers granted concessions to every interest that had a voice in Philadelphia, …”

Among the many issues that divided the founders were the power of the executive and the rights of minorities. James Madison of Virginia, in preparation for the convention, was convinced that a Confederation of States could not function because:

Neither state legislators nor their constituents could be relied upon to support the general interest of the Union, the true public good of their own communities, or the rights of minorities and individuals.

Madison went further with that argument and listed the ways that states had thwarted and obstructed the Confederation. But, if this argument was carried to the extreme the Federal government would be too powerful—a situation none of the founders wanted. Madison is now regarded as the “Father of the Constitution” and he became the author of the Bill of Rights. Somehow, he must have found the strength to find a middle ground.

But, what of the other ideological conflicts? They had meaty issues and strongly held opinions about them. First, slavery divided the land North to South. Then came the beliefs about the proper division of power—strong states vs. strong federal government. Finally, the powers of the government had to be enumerated in such a way as to protect the rights of individuals (especially the rights to private property).

I’m amazed that they could make any headway at all, but they did; and according to Rakove’s analysis the key was disciplined, open argument and, ultimately, compromise.

Original Meanings by Jack Rakove is one way to get a fresh perspective on the turbulence in Washington. By reading the history of our constitution, it becomes possible to identify many of the half-truths, misstatements and dissimulations pronounced in loud voices by our political representatives on both sides of the great political divide—and without resorting to the often faulty interpretations of talk-show hosts and their guests (many of whom have conflicted interests).

I like this book, it is hard reading at times, but the research is accurate and detailed—the reader, of course, can agree or disagree with Professor Rakove’s opinions.

Carto
Day 64: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, Jack N. Rakove (1996).
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About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked; Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure. Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical.
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