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Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

The founders thought the Constitution was a lousy document

Benjamin Franklin, urging the delegates in Philadelphia to approve the draft Constitution, said:

"...Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. ...The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good."

Franklin recognized that in a democracy, corruption starts with the people and then generally flows up to the officials. Corruption, early in the American system, was dealt with harshly, using far more stringent standards than would be applied to an ordinary citizen. Franklin -- and others -- believed that public officials had sought out and accepted a public trust and that it must never be violated. When an apathetic public believes that elected officials should be treated with tender care, more egregious corruption will inevitably follow. In Washington's first administration the Congress, most of whom were the same members who had approved the Constitution, very nearly impeached Alexander Hamilton but not for corruption, malfeasance, stealing, or dereliction of duty. They seriously considered the action because of his policies on central banking and capital markets which they believed stretched beyond original intent of the Constitution. There was even talk of impeaching Washington for allowing Hamilton to remain in the Cabinet. No one argued against such talk as "over-turning" an election. Anyone suggesting such a silly idea that Congress, exercising its prerogatives under the Constitution, would be over-turning an election by impeaching the President, would have been hooted out of the place. To a person, it was clearly understood that if the people elected members of House, supported by two-thirds of the Senate, to "throw out" the President, or a judge, or any other official... Well, that's the system at work, just as it was intended. The people would make known their approval or disapproval at the next election.

Recent arguments that Congress must arrive at some legalistic basis for impeachment is ludicrous on its face, and the proponents of such positions know this, but are willing to sacrifice "the intent" for a political upper-hand. Such inane posturing provides an excellent perch from which to launch further assaults on basic tenents of reason, i.e.: a sitting President cannot be indicted; the House cannot impeach unless the incumbent is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; the House must demonstrate criminality; the House must be guided by precedence; the Senate cannot be referred to as a "jury" because it is an elite group -- not a peer group; voila! our man cannot be impeached!

In Philadelphia, in 1787, the grounds for impeachment were debated and pondered at length with the final conclusion that Congress would ultimately decide the question ... and so be it.

Consideration was given to establishing a national board of judges to act on impeachments, but this was rejected as unwieldy. Then, consideration was given to drawing together federal judges whenever an impeachment trial was necessary, but this too was rejected. It was finally decided that impeachment is a POLITICAL process: PART OF the political system. It is NOT an inquiry into criminal conduct or unlawful behavior. Certain impeachment offenses were listed in the Constitution, but clearly, there was no intention of those offenses being the ONLY reason to remove an official from office. For this very reason, the founders left it entirely to the Senate to decide whether or not the person removed should be barred from public office. Furthermore, an impeachment does not interfere with later legal action -- AND conclusions reached and evidence used in the impeachment process may not be presented as per se fact in a later trial.

Hamilton almost single-handedly obtained the state of New York's ratification (Federalist Papers, arguments in the state assembly) of the Constitution although he strongly disagreed with the idea of a federal system without absolute power over the states. John Adams also felt that the proposed document did not give nearly enough power to the federal government and Adams also was appalled that slavery was permitted in the document. Thomas Jefferson seriously considered not agreeing because the Constitution did not place term limits on the President. James Madison was very concerned that there were not enough restrictions placed on the chief executive, and Madison was also very troubled by the lack of specificity that the document contained ONLY those powers delegated to the central government -- that it had NO other powers. Many delegates were completely opposed to enumeration of any state or private rights in the Constitution because the Convention had made it clear that ALL powers and rights NOT delegated, were retained by the states and by the people. Yet, to obtain state's ratifications, Madison agreed to personally introduce the first twelve amendments -- ten of which were nothing more than a list of SOME of those retained rights -- (the Bill of Rights) although many prominent politicians remained concerned that at some future date, misguided people would argue against a liberty because it was not one of those listed in the Constitution.

A very large number of the delegates were in opposition to the final document because of slavery but they compromised, not due to lack of conviction, but because they recognized that otherwise there would be no United States. Others compromised their strong belief that the document should contain a total and complete ban on the federal government funding a standing army during peace-time (it should rely on the state's militia).

During the Philadelphia convention James Madison recorded the remarks of the delegates and the minutes, including the last day when the final draft was debated. Some excerpts are:

"Mr. Govr. MORRIS [of Penn.] said that he too had objections, but considering the present plan as the best that was to be attained, he should take it with all its faults."

"Mr. WILLIAMSON [of No. Car.] suggested that the signing should be confined to the letter accompanying the Constitution to Congress, which might perhaps do nearly as well, and would he found be satisfactory to some members who disliked the Constitution." [He hoped this would gain more signatures supporting the final document. He recognized that even in 1787 there were single-issue non-thinkers and that some were present as delegates.]

"Mr. KING [of Mass.] suggested that the Journals of the Convention should be either destroyed, or deposited in the custody of the President. He thought if suffered to be made public, a bad use would be made of them by those who would wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution." [The record of the Convention reflected candid opinions of delegates and there had been some opposition to almost every clause. Why provide ammunition to those who would oppose ratification?]

Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Vir., and Elbridge Gerry of Mass. were present for the final vote but refused to sign. Many others objected and had left before the final vote.

In the end, delegates who did not like the final document, but signed anyway, had different reasons for their act, i.e.: "Best we can get"; "It will never be approved by the states"; or "it can always be changed." The last reason was paramount to most delegates who saw little reason to treat a constitution as some sacred cow with limitations on change. In fact, they viewed it as a blueprint for the conduct of business for a central agency which would sit to carry out the functions necessary to present a national front to the world, while leaving the states free to conduct the business of the people. Whenever the central government found it expedient to modify the Constitution, it need only hold a vote in Congress and a two-thirds majority could approve proposed amendments and send the proposals to the states. On the other hand, if the states decided something was amiss, they could approve a change and forward it to the capital city to be attached to the master blueprint. The states, where the real power resided, would require three-fourths approval before a change could take effect.

Those in the public who now embrace the ridiculous notion of a "living Constitution" which changes with the wind, point out that the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1788 and is therefore, old fashioned, -- not suitable for a modern world. They fail to note that the document was built on concepts from:

  • James Madison, who gathered ideas from the ancient Greeks and Romans (500 BC);

  • Thomas Jefferson, who plagiarized ideas from ancient Greece and Rome (500 BC);

  • John Adams who got his ideas from the ancient Romans (50 BC);

  • Concepts melded with principles from Magna Carta (1215-1297);

  • The Petition of Right (1628);

  • The English Bill of Rights (1689);

  • Experiences under a despotic King George III;

  • A parliament out of touch with the people.
That's not old fashioned -- that's a Constitution.

Philosophos Historia

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