We the People

America’s Constitution stands as a monument to compromise.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today my guest is Ron Carnegie, who is a historic interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. Ron, thanks for being with us.

Ron Carnegie: Certainly.

Harmony: I asked you here today to talk about the ratification of the Constitution. I think it’s an interesting idea, for me anyway, I always think about the Constitution as always having been there. But we actually had a period in our history after the Revolution and before the Constitution when we really had kind of a pretty loose governance that wasn’t working that well. Can you talk to me about what happened between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that we know today?

Ron: Well it’s actually longer, a different period than that. The Articles of Confederation, which are the governing body, or the governing rules that the United States was under prior to the Constitution wasn’t even adopted until 1781. Not in 1776. There was no definition of what the federal government was from ’76 until the adoption of the Articles in ’81.

It wasn’t clear at all in those first few years whether there would be a federal government. We had a very, very loose confederation of states, and that’s all that existed. Congress itself started to realize that wasn’t working before the war was even over. But they were having trouble reaching any decisions. The outcome of the war was still very, very unlikely, so the creation of a system of government wasn’t working. They put it off for a number of years, looking at it again in ’78. That’s when the Articles are actually written is in ’78. It takes until ’81 for them to be adopted.

That speaks to one of the big problems of the Articles of Confederation. One of the reasons there’s that big span of time in getting it adopted is it required too large a number of states to vote in favor of anything. That same problem is going to make them very, very weak and make it difficult to do anything when it’s the governing body in the first few years of our American republic.

They also really restrict the power of the federal government. There’s no executive, it’s still being driven by the Congress, by the legislature. The legislature is given no authority to raise revenue. They cannot raise taxes. They levy imposts to individual states asking, requiring, the states to give them money, but there’s nothing to make the states do that.

Because of this, they end up with very little money, little authority. During the 1780s, various states are entering into their own foreign treaties, they are charging the states around them import duties – sometimes very unfairly – to get trade advantages. There’s a number of troubles like that going on in a time when there is severe economic crisis, and the federal government really needs money to be able to pay the debts that it entered into in the war.

Harmony: You said there’s no executive. It seems like there’s kind of, as we’re a nation that’s breaking with England, we’re taking great pains not to create anything which could work like a king, which could give somebody the power of a monarch.

Ron: It’s a reaction to the near-absolute power that they viewed the king as having in England. Even in the British system, the king doesn’t have absolute power, but he’s involved in all the branches of government. He has far more authority than another executive would. Even outside of monarchies, it’s very common in a republic to see an executive rise to power, become a demagogue, put himself up as a dictator.

The guide that most Americans are looking at when they’re creating their government here in the United States is Rome. They’re looking at the Roman republic. But the Roman republic became an empire. The Caesars took over. That’s a strong precedent and they’re aware of that. So not only the event of the late war, but the models that they’re following creating our government, they all have that tendency to be manipulated by a tyrant.

So there’s a strong fear of an executive office. That’s going to be true when the Constitution is created. It’s one of the biggest dangers, one of the biggest challenges of seeing the Constitution ratified, is that it did create an executive office.

Harmony: So we’ve got the Articles of Confederation, but it didn’t work.

Ron: They don’t work because the states require too much. Too many of the states have to agree for anything to pass, and the states aren’t doing that. The states are far more concerned with their local interests, their own situations. One of the arguments that’s constantly made today, even with the Constitution, is that division between state power and state authority and federal authority.

Under the Articles, all of that balance is leaning far over to the states. The federal government has almost no authority. It’s very difficult to get any work done. The people who were against the idea of a central government at all use its ability to make amendments to stop what power it did have, to reduce it even further. So the government’s ineffectual. It doesn’t have the power or authority to do pretty much anything. It can’t even raise money. Without money, it can’t pay for any of the things it needs to do.

This comes to a head in Washington’s mind – and he uses this as evidence of why we need a stronger government – when you start having bodies of men raising an armed rebellion against the new United States. The situation was really bad. Really bad, so bad that a number of men who were driving forces during the Revolution were beginning to believe that our experiment had failed, and that a government had to have a monarch, or I don’t want to use the word tyrant, but a very string executive, stronger than our presidency is going to be, to move back to that older idea of overruling influential government who’s responsible for all branches, like a, like the king in England.

That’s a scary thought to think that that’s how bad the situation was, that the people who defended and fought for this, that some of them were now looking at it as a mistake. That’s one of the things that drives Washington out of his retirement to get involved in seeing a new system of government created. Because it terrifies him that people who he respects are now considering returning to a monarchy.

Harmony: So tell me about what happens when they decide the Articles of Confederation aren’t working. They’ve got to get together and come up with a new plan. They’re inventing a government that there’s no model for in history.

Ron: And that they have no authority for. They’re, when they meet in Philadelphia, what their instructions actually are is to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Harmony: And when we say “they,” who are we talking about?

Ron: A number of deputies, is what they were calling them. Deputies were chosen by the various states to represent in a smaller convention. In most cases, these men are members of the congress. One of the most notable exceptions to that would be Washington. Washington was retired at the time, but he was sent as one of the deputies for Virginia.

Harmony: So Washington’s retired, but he’s still probably the country’s biggest celebrity, and his presence alone at the proceedings kind of lends them some credibility. So what happens?

Ron: A few of them brought plans. One of those is called The Virginia Plan. That was brought by Madison, it’s the reason we view Madison as the father of the Constitution. The Constitution wasn’t created by one man. We often refer to him as being its author but in reality, government is compromise. That’s exactly what was happening in that convention. But a lot of the compromises and the mold that was followed was based on this Virginia plan that Madison brought, with small alterations based on various compromises on numbers of votes and things like that.

Harmony: You talked about compromise. I think so many of the men who gathered there, there were such huge divisions that compromise is almost an understatement when you talk about what they had to overcome to be able to agree on a plan that they thought would work. There were divisions between North and South, between large states and small states, between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. People who felt like there should be a very strong central government, and people who felt like power should reside in the states.

Ron: I don’t believe there were very many anti-Federalists represented in the convention – that’s going to play more of a part during the ratification process. Some of the other things you mentioned were huge issues.

The compromise that’s referred to as The Great Compromise, the biggest compromise is directly based on what you were saying about large and small states, and that’s “how will states be represented in legislature?” Small states wanted an equal vote, they wanted one vote per state. Whereas, large, heavily populated states, such as Virginia, want representation by their population.

We have a government that’s made up, basically of four parts: the three branches, and one of those branches is divided into two. By the original Constitution, every one of those groups was chosen in a different fashion, and serves for a different term. So what that does is, if you have any major change, that somebody wants to make happen, it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to achieve large-scale change. You have to get a consensus of four groups, so it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of agreement, and some time. That was the preserve, to make sure we don’t enter into foolish changes, that we don’t move too quickly, that we consider things very well.

Harmony: And we’re talking there about the system of checks and balances. These people were falling over themselves to make sure that nobody could run away with power. How do all these three branches work together to keep each other in check, to make sure that no one part of that triumvirate has the balance of power?

Ron: They have to keep an eye on one another, and the people have to keep an eye on all of them. It's well-delineated in the Constitution what authorities or powers go to one another, but it seemed to be apparent even to Washington that those could be overstepped. Because he warns us of that when he steps out of the presidency. He states in his farewell address that we should never allow any branch of government to encroach upon the other branches, because it creates despotism and concentrates all the power into just a few hands.

He mentions that there very well may raise occasions where it seems like a good idea, like it will be some short-term benefit or it will move us forward, or it might improve our safety and our defense. But, again looking back to history and looking back to the republic of Rome, it’s usually by encroachment that free governments are destroyed.

He’s speaking directly of things like the making of Caesars. That’s usually how it happens. Usually a free government gives away its authority, gives away its freedom, because they think it will increase their security. And that’s usually how Caesars became Caesars, how we got dictators.

Harmony: One of the things that I like about the process of creating the Constitution is how ambivalent the creators were about what they had written. They really didn’t have a whole lot of confidence that this Constitution was going to hold up for 20 years, much less 200.

Ron: Franklin wrote a letter that sort of mentions that. What he does in this letter is, he mentions that there’s a lot of things he’s not sure about. Things that he doesn’t agree with, things that he thinks might be a mistake. But then, by the end of the letter, he’s changed its tone. He starts to admit that even though he feels this way and he has doubts, he’s wise enough to know that a body of men have a greater wisdom than any one man.

Some of the things he doubts that the body has chosen are probably, they’re the body’s choice. The convention’s choice is probably more accurate than his own. And that to quote him, in a quote that Washington himself used “That while our government may not be perfect, no more perfect government was ever created by man.” I think that letter should definitely be read by any American. It should be part of the reading that goes along with reading the Constitution that we do when we’re in school. Because it’s a great reminder of what our government is.

The United States is an experiment. Nobody knew if it would work, or how long it would last. We’re quick today to point out some of the errors. The errors in the original framework of the Constitution, or more typically, errors in how it was viewed and how evenly applied it was to all of society. But that forgets that we are an ongoing experiment. We aren’t finished. We’re still building, we’re still improving, we’re still working on having the best government that a nation can have.

Harmony: Thank you for being with us.

Ron: My pleasure.

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