Final Exchange on the Constitution between Me and a Tea Party Leader

Tea Party leader Michael P. Leahy and I have been pretty civilly debating the historical meaning of the framing and ratifying of the Constitution — although “debate” has really meant clarifying where we starkly disagree. It’s been useful for me to hone and articulate what I really think, which will appeal to some liberals no more than it appeals to some conservatives. (Making friends wherever I go.)

I think our final exchange was the best, and might even illuminate something about the politics of discussing the Constitution, so I’ll put it all here. The whole multi-week back-and-forth can be found by poking around Line of Fire, the blog for Broadside Books, the HarperCollins right-wing book imprint edited by Adam Bellow.

Leahy leads off:

William,

In your most recent post you made several assertions about the Constitution with which I strongly disagree. Our differences circle back to this: To me, and I think to most Americans during the Founding Era who participated in the selection of delegates to the ratification conventions, as well as the delegates to those conventions, it comes back to this simple concept: A deal’s a deal.

By that I mean, it’s not some obscure unstated secret intent of the participants that determines what the secular covenant of the Constitution means. Instead, its’ the meaning of the plain words of the Constitution that matter.

Let’s start here, where you argue:

I think casting Hamilton as the usurper of the Constitution, and concurring in Jefferson’s and Madison’s casting themselves as its defenders, rests on a sentimental sense of early Constitutional history . . . a view of the Constitution as essentially and fundamentally intended to do one thing — a Jeffersonian/Madisonian thing, associated with land, liberty, and decentralized authority — and to prevent another — a Hamiltonian thing, associated with money, authority, and centralized power. . .

You see Hamilton as pulling a fast one there — and I agree that a lot of what he says in The Federalist is just high-Whig blather, intended to soothe — but Hamilton had just as good reason to be shocked and dismayed at Madison’s suddenly opposing everything he did. . .

For me, the realpolitik of the framing — along with Article I, Section 10 – makes it clear that one key part of the Constitution’s dedicated purpose was to eradicate popular schemes of public finance and empower the funding, assumption, and central-banking plan that Hamilton, Robert Morris, and the rest of the high-finance nationalists had been unabashedly working for since at least the early 1780′s. . . the Constitution came into existence, in large part, precisely to empower the Hamilton finance plan.

What you miss is that the “secular covenant” of the Constitution was not completely expressed in the arguments of Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers–not even close. The “deal” that was captured in the words of the Constitution went through much longer and stronger fire than merely those rapidly penned arguments. It was more significantly formed in the back and forth of the debates at the ratification conventions in the thirteen states and in the election campaigns of the members of the House of Representatives to the First Congress.

You may recall that at the time they were writing the Federalist Papers, neither Madison nor Hamilton saw the need for a Bill of Rights. But Madison changed his mind before the secular covenant was complete, and for good reason. Unlike Hamilton, who never stood for elective office after the new government was formed, Madison went through the battles of a hard fought electoral campaign for a seat in the fifth Congressional District of Virginia against his friend, James Monroe. Madison learned an important lesson during that campaign. The people wanted a Bill of Rights. Madison, unliked Hamilton, fully recognized the sovereignty of the people from the beginning, and he listened to what he learned during that campaign. It was these kind of up front and personal engagement with the voters that formed the backbone of the Jeffersonian-Madison Democrat-Republicans. This isn’t mere sentimentality, as you suggest, but instead, an authentic reflection of the true intent of the Constitution.

These arguments were presented often and forcefully by the first national opposition newspaper, the National Gazette, during the Washington Administration, and then later by the Philadelphia Aurora during the Adams Administration.

I will grant you this, however. Hamilton was quickly able to gain support for his extra-Constitutional schemes among some of the framers who shared his elitist views, if not his persuasiveness and energy. I point here to the example of fellow signer of the Constitution Daniel Carroll of Maryland, who in June, 1790 forcefully argued on behalf of a direct federal subsidy to his neighbor’s glassware factory. Carroll saw such federal largesse directed at a politically connected manufacturer, as Hamilton argued later in his Report on Manufactures, as Constitutional. Fortunately, Roger Sherman, also a signer of the Constitution, the Articles of Incorporation, and the Declaration of Independence, quickly dismissed such actions as entirely outside the bounds of the Constitution. Thanks to Sherman and the majority of the First Congress, the first “government bailout” of a manufacturing firm was “negatived” by the House.

But the true intent of the Constitution was never to enable a Hamiltonian quasi-monarchical financial and political elite to use the federal government to undertake any project they saw fit. The true intent was reflected by the majority of American citizens and the early defenders of the Constitution–men like Jefferson, Madison, and Roger Sherman.

I respond:

Michael,

We do sharply disagree about the Constitution at its founding. If “a deal’s a deal,“ as you say, the important question would be what the deal is. I maintain that nobody at the time knew what the deal was. That’s our main difference.

Just as today, nearly everybody at the time seems to have had an opinion about it. But Roger Sherman’s calling a federal bailout unconstitutional doesn’t make it so; the House’s refusing to pass a bailout bill doesn‘t either. That same House passed the bank bill — yet that doesn’t make you, for one, or James Madison, for another, deem the bank bill constitutional.

I think that like many of the liberals you oppose, and like many of the founders themselves, you’re constructing what is really a preference regarding how the Constitution should work as something historically essential to the Constitution‘s intrinsic nature.

Despite the Washington administration’s manifest violations of many specific restraints in the Bill of Rights, and of the crystal-clear constitutional rule on habeas corpus, which I’ve written about in stark detail, and despite those violations’ ineluctable connection to Hamilton’s national finance plans, I can’t see the high-Federalist position regarding Congress’s power to form a bank, for example, as “some obscure unstated secret intent of the participants” of the conventions, and thus a bait-and-switch distortion of the Constitution as passed. The Federalist financial intent that I discussed in the last post was largely transparent to participants at the time (it’s obscure today only because nobody wants to deal with it). I see that intent as both an overwhelmingly important input to the Constitution and a policy expression of its meaning and purpose, placing the Federalists at odds with other, equally legitimate inputs to and expressions of that meaning.

In other words, to me the Constitution as debated, ratified, and amended involves political and philosophical contradictions. To you, and to many others, all across the political spectrum, it doesn’t: the essential meaning is plain. Some liberals construct the Constitution’s essential meaning as enabling — nay, requiring! — New Deal and Great Society programs. Those who think there’s a plain and essential meaning can’t agree on what that meaning is. The founders couldn’t either.

You and I do firmly agree that the nature of the Constitution “was not completely expressed in the arguments of Hamilton and Madison” in The Federalist. I actually think people tend to make too much of those essays. My reference to Federalist #10 was intended only to remind you that Madison, whom you’d posited as the Constitution’s defender against Hamilton‘s violations, actually concurred in the Hamiltonian high-finance purposes of forming a national government.

I therefore see the evolution of Madison’s point of view on a bill of rights, his political struggles at home in Virginia, and his enmity with Hamilton as more complicated than you seem to imply. For example: “The people wanted a Bill of Rights.” Well, yes — and/or the states did, and the terms “the people” and “the states” were blurred, deliberately and politically, then as now. Madison worked hard to focus the rights in the amendments largely on individuals rather than on states. There was some sleight-of-hand and deliberate vagueness involved, with which we’ll always struggle, and with which we’ve struggled especially hard since ratification of the post-Civil War amendments. States-rights people might fairly see Madison as the one who pulled a bait-and-switch in his handling of the amendments! Patrick Henry certainly saw it that way; hence Madison’s representing Virginia in the House and not the Senate. From the obverse point of view, Hamilton too had reason to feel that Madison was suddenly turning on him, in claiming that the federal government they’d collaborated in creating had only the powers explicitly enumerated.

Your “up-front personal engagement with the voters” might as well be a Madison-Jefferson Republican campaign slogan. That’s what I meant by “sentimental.” Uncritically echoing the Jeffersonians’ admiration of themselves feels more political than historical to me.

There’s another way to consider this disagreement. Hamilton was so quickly able to gain support for his plans precisely because those plans had always been crucial to the drive for a national government. That doesn’t mean (and of course I wouldn’t have suggested) that “the true intent of the Constitution was to enable a Hamiltonian quasi-monarchical finance and political elite to use the federal government to undertake any project they saw fit.” But I think you seriously underrate the importance of the efforts for nationalism in the 1770’s and ‘80’s of those high-finance elites, with whom Madison collaborated until he ran into political trouble in Virginia.

What you’re calling “Hamilton’s extra-Constitutional schemes” are part and parcel of the nationalist movement that, while embattled, ultimately gave us a Constitution, as aided and endorsed by men who can’t be counted among urban financiers: Madison, Randolph, Jefferson, Adams. Jefferson much later described himself as shocked to discover what had been going on in his absence in France, and presented himself as a dupe, and I’m sure he meant it — but self-serving reminiscence is the lifeblood of founders’ memoirs.

You close by describing the Constitution’s true intent as reflected by “the majority of American citizens.” Given the politics of the ratifying process, I don’t know — and I don’t believe anyone else knows either — what a majority of American citizens at the time thought about the Constitution‘s intent. And I should note that by “the majority of American citizens” I mean, in this case, what you must also mean: the majority of that minority who had a right to vote and hold office.

But our real disagreement isn’t in these details, which could proliferate forever. What I really dissent from is your idea that the framing, ratifying, and amendment process of the Constitution led to any single, manifestly evident and plain “true intent”; that any such true intent, if it existed, would necessarily be Jeffersonian/Madisonian and anti-Hamiltonian; and that the Tea Party would know how to apply such an intent, if it existed, to policy in the 21st century.

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One thought on “Final Exchange on the Constitution between Me and a Tea Party Leader

  1. Examination of the innocent frauds of conventional wisdom will make few friends. You can, however, count me among friends made. Thanks.

    Also, I read your article on Tom Paine in June’s American History Magazine and can highly recommend it to those who want a greater understanding of the current events of those days.

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