Ghosts of Constitutional Debates Past – Part III


So, a couple of weeks ago, we left the Constitutional debate with William Findley’s detailed, 22-point objection to the document.  The editors of the Library of America volume include a similarly detailed, point-by-point rebuttal, by an anonymous respondent under the pseudonym “Plain Truth.”  Some of his responses are weak, others are off the mark, but other score some points, and it’s interesting to see which are which.

Two of the themes that evolved early on were the lack of a Bill of Rights, and the stability of the tension between the states and the federal government.  While the concern is among the most serious, the argument here back and forth is among the weakest, in part because of the lack of historical reference points.  The Dutch and the Swiss had federal republics, but they were small, and the great threats came from outside, not inside.  The Roman Empire – always a point of reference – was more useful is worrying about the concentration of power in the executive, a completely different mal-distribution of power.

But the question of whether or not the tension between the states and the federal government could be maintained, or would eventually either consolidate or fracture the Republic, is one that has to be conducted almost entirely in hypotheticals.  It makes for a debate that we can evaluate in retropect, but one which must have been frustrating for those who weren’t committed to one side or the other.  The federal-state split also manifests itself in odd ways.  One letter in opposition to the Constitution, a “Letter from An Old Whig,” argues that the amendment process is too cumbersome, and that either no amendments will ever pass, or the country will tear itself apart trying to pass them.

Oddly, the debate between Findley and the rebuttal on this point could be about slavery – but isn’t, at least not in the way we think of it later.  Findley objects that Congress can’t ban the slave trade until 1808, and his respondent says that he agrees this is too long, but since the matter can’t be much worse than it is now, maybe at least by then it will be better.

The question of a Bill of Rights is rebutted with much the same logic that Wilson used in his original speech defending the new Constitution: it isn’t necessary, since we assume that Congress’s powers are exclusive, while state constitutions are inclusive.  Findley’s objection isn’t that this is wrong, but that he doesn’t trust that the Framers really mean it, or that future generations will live by it.  The debate over the Banks of the United States would show there was some real risk on this point, but even that debate was carried on with the assumption of enumerated power, that the burden of proof was on the Bank’s advocates.

And for you 2nd Amendment fans – and who among us isn’t a 2nd Amendment fan – there’s the response to Findley’s worries about a standing army.  “Plain Truth” claims that a standing army shouldn’t be a concern, since every man is a member of a militia, and what standing army could pose a threat to that?  For those of you who think that guns are only for personal defense, consider that long and hard.

Two other points about the tenor of the debate stand out, as well.  There’s another letter from Cincinnatus which reads like a blog screed.  The “Old Whig’s” letter starts off professing that he really wants to be persuaded of the Constitution’s goodness, at least as an experiment.  It’s not apparent whether he’s sincere, or is the Revolutionary Era equivalent of a seminar caller.  The “Plain Truth’s” point-by-point refutation reads like an expert Fisking.  In short, this is what robust, healthy political debate looks like.

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