An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States/Chapter XI

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

Chapter XI
The Economic Conflict Over Ratification As Viewed By Contemporaries[edit]

Having discovered the nature of the social conflict connected with the formation and adoption of the Constitution, and having shown the probable proportion of the people who participated in the conflict and the several group-interests into which they fell, it is interesting, though not fundamentally important, to inquire whether the leading thinkers of the time observed the nature of the antagonisms present in the process. A full statement of the results of such an inquiry would require far more space than is at command in this volume; and consequently only a few illustrative and representative opinions can be given.

No one can pore for weeks over the letters, newspapers, and pamphlets of the years 1787-1789 without coming to the conclusion that there was a deep-seated conflict between a popular party based on paper money and agrarian interests, and a conservative party centred in the towns and resting on financial, mercantile, and personal property interests generally. It is true that much of the fulmination in pamphlets was concerned with controversies over various features of the Constitution; but those writers who went to the bottom of matters, such as the authors of The Federalist, and the more serious Anti-Federalists, gave careful attention to the basic elements in the struggle as well as to the " incidental controversial details.

The superficiality of many of the ostensible reasons put forth by the opponents of the Constitution was penetrated by Madison. Writing to Jefferson, in October, 1788, he says: "The little pamphlet herewith inclosed will give you a collective view of the alterations which have been proposed by the State Conventions for the new Constitution. Various and numerous as they appear, they certainly omit many of the true grounds of opposition. The articles relating to Treaties, to paper money, and to contracts, created more enemies than all the errors in the system, positive and negative, put together."[1]

Naturally the more circumspect of the pamphleteers who lent their support to the new system were careful about a too precise alignment of forces, for their strength often lay in the conciliation of opponents rather than in exciting a more deep-seated antagonism. But even in such conciliatory publications the material advantages to be expected from the adoption of the Constitution are constantly put forward.

Take, for example, this extract from a mollifying "Address to the Freemen of America" issued while the Convention was in the midst of its deliberations: "Let the public creditor, who lent his money to his country , and the soldier and citizen who yielded their services, come forward next and contribute their aid to establish an effective federal government. It is from the united power and resources of America only that they can expect permanent and substantial justice. ...Let the citizens of America who inhabit the western counties of our states fly to a federal power for protection [against the Indians]. ...Let the farmer who groans beneath the weight of direct taxation seek relief from a government whose extensive jurisdiction will enable it to extract the resources of our country by means of imposts and customs. Let the merchant, who complains of the restrictions and exclusions imposed upon his vessels by foreign nations, unite his influence in establishing a power that shall retaliate those injuries and insure him success in his honest pursuits by a general system of commercial regulations. Let the manufacturer and mechanic, who are everywhere languishing for want of employment, direct their eyes to an assembly of the states. It will be in their power only to encourage such arts and manufactures as are essential to the prosperity of our country.[2]

It is in the literature of the contest in the states where the battle over ratification was hottest that we find the most frank recognition of the fact that one class of property interests was in conflict with another. This recognition appears not so much in attacks on opponents as in appeals to the groups which have the most at stake in the outcome of the struggle, although virulent abuse of debtors and paper money advocates is quite common. Merchants, money lenders, public creditors are constantly urged to support the Constitution on the ground that their economic security depends upon the establishment of the new national government.

Perhaps the spirit of the battle over ratification is best reflected in the creed ironically attributed to each of the contending parties by its opponents. The recipe for an Anti-Federalist essay which indicates in a very concise way the class-bias that actuated the opponents of the Constitution, ran in this manner: "Wellborn, nine times - Aristocracy, eighteen times -Liberty of the Press, thirteen times repeated - Liberty of Conscience, once - Negro slavery, once mentioned - Trial by jury, seven times - Great Men, six times repeated - Mr .Wilson, forty times - put them altogether and dish them up at pleasure."[3]

To this sarcastic statement of their doctrines, the Anti-Federalists replied by formulating the "Political Creed of Every Federalist" as follows: "I believe in the infallibility, all-sufficient wisdom, and infinite goodness of the late convention; or in other words, I believe that some men are of so perfect a nature that it is absolutely impossible for them to commit errors or design villainy. I believe that the great body of the people are incapable of judging in their nearest concerns, and that, therefore, they ought to be guided by the opinions of their superiors. ...I believe that aristocracy is the best form of government. ... I believe that trial by jury and the freedom of the press ought to be exploded from every wise government. ...I believe that the new constitution will prove the bulwark of liberty - the balm of misery - the essence of justice - and the astonishment of all mankind. In short, I believe that it is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world. I believe that to speak, write, read, think, or hear any thing against the proposed government is damnable heresy, execrable rebellion, and high treason, against the sovereign majesty of the convention - And lastly I believe that every person who differs from me in belief is an infernal villain. AMEN."[4]

Marshall's Analysis Of The Conflict[edit]

It must not be thought that this antagonism of economic interests which, in the language of controversy, frequently took on the form of a war between "aristocracy" and "democracy" was observed only by partisans whose views were distorted by the heat of battle. On the contrary, it was understood by the keenest thinkers-in fact, one may say that the more profound the wisdom of the observer, the clearer was his comprehension of the issues at stake. Next to Madison, whose concept of the Constitution-making process has already been fully discussed,[5] John Marshall probably understood best the nature of the new instrument, the social forces which produced it, and the great objects it was designed to accomplish. In speaking from the bench, as Chief Justice, he used, of course, the language of jurisprudence and spoke of the Constitution as a creation of the whole people.[6] But as a historian of great acumen, in which capacity he was not hampered by the traditional language of the bench and bar, Marshall sketched with unerring hand the economic conflict which led to the adoption of the Constitution, and impressed itself upon the nature of that instrument. In his masterly Life of Washington, he sets forth this conflict in unmistakable terms:

1. In the first place, the mercantile interest was sorely tried under the Articles of Confederation. There "was a general discontent with the course of trade. It had commenced with the native merchants of the north who found themselves incapable of contending in their own ports with foreigners; and was soon communicated to others. The gazettes of Boston contained some very animated and angry addresses which produced resolutions for the government of the citizens of that town, applications to their state legislature, a petition to congress, and a circular letter to the merchants of the several sea ports throughout the United States. ...The merchants of the city of Philadelphia presented a memorial to the legislature of that state, in which, after lamenting it as a fundamental defect in the constitution that full and entire power over the commerce of the United States had not been originally vested in Congress ...they prayed that the legislature would endeavour to procure from Congress a recommendation to the several states to vest in that body the necessary powers over the commerce of the United States." [7]

2. The public creditors had lost faith in the old government. "That the debt of the United States should have greatly depreciated will excite no surprise when it is recollected that the government of the Union possessed no funds, and without the assent of jealous and independent sovereigns could acquire none to pay the accruing interest; but the depreciation of the debt due from those states, which made an annual and adequate provision for the interest, can be ascribed only to a want of confidence in the governments which were controlled by no fixed principles; and it is therefore not entirely unworthy of attention. In many of those states which had repelled every attempt to introduce into circulation a depreciated medium of commerce or to defeat the annual provision of funds for the payment of the interest, the debt sunk in value to ten, five, and even less than four shillings in the pound. However unexceptionable might be the conduct of the existing legislature, the hazard from those which were to follow was too great to be encountered without an immense premium."

3. A profound division ensued throughout the United States based on different views of the rights of property. "At length," continues Marshall, "two great parties were formed in every state which were distinctly marked and which pursued distinct objects with systematic arrange- ment. The one struggled with unabated zeal for the exact observance of public and private engagements. By those belonging to it, the faith of a nation or of a private man was deemed a sacred pledge, the violation of which was equally forbidden by the principles of moral justice and of sound policy. The distresses of individuals were, they thought, to be alleviated only by industry and frugality, not by a relaxation of the laws or by a sacrifice of the rights of others. They were consequently the uniform friends of a regular administration of justice, and of a vigorous course of taxation which would enable the state to comply with its engagements. By a natural association of ideas, they were also, with very few exceptions, in favor of enlarging the powers of the federal government. . . .

...

"The other party marked out for themselves a more indulgent course. Viewing with extreme tenderness the case of the debtor, their efforts were unceasingly directed to his relief. To exact a faithful compliance with contracts was, in their opinion, a harsh measure which the people would not bear. They were uniformly in favor of relaxing the administration of justice, of affording facilities for the payment of debts, or of suspending their collection, and of remitting taxes. The same course of opinion led them to resist every attempt to transfer from their own hands into those of congress powers which by others were deemed essential to the preservation of the union. In many of these states, the party last mentioned constituted a decided majority of the people, and in all of them it was very powerful. The emission of paper money, the delay of legal proceedings, and the suspension of the collection of taxes were the fruits of their rule wherever they were completely predominant. ...Throughout the union, a contest between these parties was periodically revived; and the public mind was perpetually agitated with hopes and fears on subjects which essentially affected the fortunes of a considerable proportion of society."

4. Finally, so sharp was this division into two parties on the lines of divergent views of property rights, that the Constitution, far from proceeding from "the whole people," barely escaped defeat altogether.' So positive is this statement by the great Chief Justice and so decidedly does it contradict his juristic theory of the nature of the supreme law that the two should be studied together. For this reason, the two views enunciated by Marshall are printed in parallel columns:

"So balanced were the parties in some of them [the states] that even after the subject had been discussed for a considerable time, the fate of the constitution could scarcely be conjectured; and so small in many instances, was the majority in its favor, as to afford strong ground for the opinion that, had the influence of character been removed, the intrinsic merits of the instrument would not have secured its adoption. Indeed it is scarcely to be doubted that in some of the adopting states a majority of the people were in the opposition. In all of them, the numerous amendments which were proposed demonstrate the reluctance with which the new government was accepted; and that a dread of dismemberment, not an approbation of the particular system under consideration, had induced an acquiescence in it. . . . North Carolina and Rhode Island did not at first accept the constitution, and New York was apparently dragged into it by a repugnance to being excluded from the confederacy." Marshall, in his Life of Washington, written in 1804-07. "The government [of the United States] proceeds directly from the people; it is 'ordained and established' in the name of the people; and it is declared to be ordained 'in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty' to themselves and to their posterity. ... The government of the Union then (whatever may be the influence of this fact on the case) is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form and substance it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them and are to be exercised directly on them and for their benefit. ...It is the government of all; its powers are delegated by all; it represents all, and acts for all. Marshall, in McCulloch vs. Maryland (4 Wheaton, 316), in 1819.

The Conflict In The States[edit]

Turning aside from these more general observations on the nature of the conflict over the ratification of the Constitution, let us now take up the struggle in the several states and examine the views entertained by some of the representative participants in it.

New Hampshire. -That New Hampshire was rather sharply divided into an "aristocratic" and a "country" party at the period of the adoption of the Constitution was remarked by an observing Frenchman;[8] and the New Hampshire Spy, published at Portsmouth, in the issue of October 27, 1787, aligns the mercantile and mechanical interest on the side of the new Constitution, adding that the "honest farmer" can have no objections, either. "The honest man," runs the plea, "can have no objection to a federal government, for while it obliges him to pay a sacred regard to past contracts, it will eventually secure him in his person and his property. The mercantile interest have suffered enough to induce them to wish for, and espouse a federal reform. ... The mechanical interest can have no aversion to it, when they are informed that an efficient government will protect and encourage commerce, which is the very soul of mechanism. ...Nor can the honest farmer have any objection; the increase of commerce will naturally increase the demand for such articles as he may have for sale; he will be enabled to pay his taxes and, if economy shakes hands with industry, increase his farm and live independent of troublesome creditors. Since then no one respectable order of citizens can have any just reason to reject the new Constitution, we may venture to conclude that none but fools, blockheads, and mad men will dare oppose it."

Massachusetts. -The contest over the Constitution in Massachusetts was a sharp conflict between the personalty interests on the one hand and the small farmers and debtors on the other, and this fact seems to have been recognized by every thoughtful leader on both sides. This view of the social struggle was set forth on so many occasions and by so many eminent observers that it is difficult to select from the mass of material the most typical statement of the situation. Perhaps that by General Knox is not excelled for its clarity and conciseness. Writing to Washington, January 14, 1788, a few days after the state convention had begun its labors, he describes the alignment over ratification as follows:

"There are three parties existing in that state (Massachusetts] at present, differing in their numbers and greatly differing in their wealth and talents.

"The 1st. is the commercial part of the state to which are added all the men of considerable property, the clergy, the lawyers - including all the judges of all the courts, and all the officers of the late army, and also the neighborhood of all the great towns - its numbers may include 3/7ths of the state. This party are for vigorous government, perhaps many of them would have been still more pleased with the new Constitution had it been more analogous to the British Constitution.

"The 2d party are the eastern part of the state lying beyond New Hampshire formerly the province of Main - This party are chiefly looking towards the erection of a new state and the majority of them will adopt or reject the new Constitution as it may facilitate or retard their designs - this party 2/7ths.

"The 3d party are the Insurgents or their favorers, the great majority of whom are for an annihilation of debts, public and private, and therefore they will not approve the new Constitution - this party 2/7ths." [9]

Several months before Knox had formulated this view of the conflict, indeed, early in the struggle over ratification, the Federalist agitators were busy with appeals to practical economic interests. The Massachusetts Gazette of October 26, 1787, for example, contains a letter signed by "Marcus" in which the groups likely to be affected advantageously by the new Constitution are enumerated and an argument directed to each of them: "It is the interest of the merchants to encourage the new constitution, because commerce may then be a national object, and nations will form treaties with us. It is the interest of the mechanicks to join the mercantile interest, because it is not their interest to quarrel with their bread and butter. It is the interest of the farmer because the prosperity of commerce gives vent to his produce, raises the value of his lands, and commercial duties will alleviate the burden of his taxes. It is the interest of the landholder, because thousands in Europe, with moderate fortunes will migrate to this country if an efficient government gives them a prospect of tranquillity. It is the interest of all gentlemen and men of property, because they will see many low demagogues reduced to their tools, whose upstart dominion insults their feelings, and whose passions for popularity will dictate laws, which ruin the minority of creditors and please the majority of debtors. It is the interest of the American soldier as the military profession will then be respectable and Florida may be conquered in a campaign. The spoils of the West-Indies and South America may enrich the next generation of Cincinnati.

It is the interest of the lawyers who have ability and genius, because the dignities in the Supreme Court will interest professional ambition and create emulation which is not now felt. ...It is the interest of the clergy, as civil tumults excite every passion -the soul is neglected and the clergy starve. It is the interest of all men whose education has been liberal and extensive because there will be a theatre for the display of talents."

In fact, from the very beginning of the movement, the most eminent advocates of a new system were aware of the real nature of the struggle which lay before them. They knew that there was a deep-seated antagonism between the "natural aristocracy" and the "turbulent democracy" which was giving the government of Massachusetts trouble. Such an analysis of the difficulty is set forth by Stephen Higginson, a leading Federalist of Boston, in March, 1787: "The people of the interior parts of these states [New England] have by far too much political knowledge and too strong a relish for unrestrained freedom, to be governed by our feeble system, and too little acquaintance with real sound policy or rational freedom and too little virtue to govern themselves. They have become too well acquainted with their own weight in the political scale under such governments as ours and have too high a taste for luxury and dissipation to sit down contented in their proper line, when they see others possessed of much more property than themselves. With these feelings and sentiments they will not be quiet while such distinctions exist as to rank and property; and sensible of their own force, they will not rest easy till they possess the reins of Government and have divided property with their betters, or they shall be compelled by force to submit to their proper stations and mode of living." [10]

Discerning opponents of the Constitution, as well as its advocates, were aware of the alignment of forces in the battle. Rufus King explained to Madison in January, 1788, that the opposition was grounded on antagonism to property rather than to the outward aspects of the new system. "Apprehension that the liberties of the people are in danger," he said, "and a distrust of men of property or education have a more powerful effect upon the minds of our opponents than any specific objections against the Constitution. ...The opposition complains that the lawyers, judges, clergymen, merchants, and men of education are all in favour of the Constitution - and for that reason they appear to be able to make the worse appear the better cause." [11]

The correctness of King's observation is sustained by a vigorous writer in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal of November 26, 1787, who charges the supporters of the Constitution with attempting to obscure the real nature of the instrument, and enumerates the interests advocating its adoption. "At length," says the writer, "the luminary of intelligence begins to beam its effulgent rays upon this important production; the deceptive mists cast before the eyes of the people by the delusive machinations of its INTERESTED advocates begins to dissipate, as darkness flies before the burning taper. ...Those furious zealots who are for cramming it down the throats of the people without allowing them either time or opportunity to scan or weigh it in the balance of their intelligences, bear the same marks in their features as those who have been long wishing to erect an aristocracy in THIS COMMONWEALTH - their menacing cry is for a RIGID government, it matters little to them of what kind, provided it answers THAT description. ...They incessantly declare that none can discover any defect in the system but bankrupts who wish no government and officers of the present government who fear to lose a part of their power. ...It may not be improper to scan the characters of its most strenuous advocates: it will first be allowed that many undesigning citizens may wish its adoption from the best motives, but these are modest and silent, when compared to the greater number, who endeavor to suppress all attempts for investigations; these violent partizans are for, having the people gulp down the gilded pill blindfolded, whole, and without any qualification whatever, these consist generally, of the NOBLE order of C-s, holders of public securities, men of great wealth and expectations of public office, B-k-s and L—y-s: these with their train of dependents from [form] the aristocratick combination."

Probably the most reasoned statement of the antagonism of realty and personalty in its relation to the adoption of the Constitution in Massachusetts was made in the letters of "Cornelius" on December 11 and 18, 1787: "I wish," he said, " there never might be any competition between the landed and the mercantile interests, nor between any different classes of men whatever. Such competition will, however, exist, so long as occasion and opportunity for it is given, and while human nature remains the same that it has ever been. The citizens in the seaport towns are numerous; they live compact; their interests are one; there is a constant connection and intercourse between them; they can, on any occasion, centre their votes where they please. This is not the case with those who are in the landed interest; they are scattered far and wide; they have but little intercourse and connection with each other. ...I conceive a foundation is laid for throwing the whole power of the federal government into the hands of those who are in the mercantile interest; and for the landed, which is the great interest at of this country, to lie unrepresented, forlorn, and without hope. It grieves me to suggest an idea of this kind: But I believe it to be important and not the mere phantom of imagination, or the result of an uneasy and restless disposition." [12]

Connecticut. -There was no such spirited battle of wits over ratification in Connecticut as occurred in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, Ellsworth, in that state, produced a remarkable series of essays in support of the new Constitution which were widely circulated and read. In these papers there is revealed a positive antagonism between agrarianism and personalty, but an attempt is made at conciliation by subtly blending the two interests. Ellsworth opens: "The writer of the following passed the first part of his life in mercantile employments, and by Industry and economy acquired a sufficient sum on retiring from trade to purchase and stock a decent plantation, on which he now lives in the state of a farmer. By his present employment he is interested in the prosperity of agriculture and those who derive a support from cultivating the earth. An acquaintance with business has freed him from many prejudices and jealousies which he sees in his neighbors who have not intermingled with mankind nor learned by experience the method of managing an extensive circulating property. Conscious of an honest intention he wishes to address his brethren on some political subjects which now engage the public attention and will in the sequel greatly influence the value of landed property." [13]

The fact that the essential implications of this statement about his primary economic interests being those of a farmer are untrue does not affect the point here raised: Ellsworth recognised that the opposition was agrarian in character, and he simulated the guise of a farmer to conciliate it. Later on Ellsworth classifies the opposition. In the first rank he puts the Tories as leading in resisting the adoption of the Constitution because it would embarrass Great Britain. In the second class, Ellsworth puts those who owe money. "Debtors in desperate circumstances," he says, "who have not resolution to be either honest or industrious will be the next men to take alarm. They have long been upheld by the property of their creditors and the mercy of the public, and daily destroy a thousand honest men who are unsuspicious. Paper money and tender acts is the only atmosphere in which they can breathe and live. This is now so generally known that by being a friend to such measures, a man effectually advertises himself as a bankrupt. ...There is another kind of people who will be found in the opposition: Men of much self-importance and supposed skill in politics who are not of sufficient consequence to obtain public employment, but can spread jealousies in the little districts of country where they are placed. These are always jealous of men in place and of public measures, and aim at making themselves consequential by distrusting everyone in the higher offices of society. ...But in the present case men who have lucrative and influential state offices, if they act from principles of self interest will be tempted to oppose an alteration which would doubtless be beneficial to the people. To sink from a controulment of finance or any other great departments of the state, thro' want of ability or opportunity to act a part in the federal system must be a terrifying consideration." [14]

Leaving aside the Tories and office-holders, it is apparent that the element which Ellsworth considers the most weighty in the opposition is the agrarian party. The correctness of his analysis is supported by collateral pieces of evidence. Sharon, one of the leading paper money towns which opposed the ratification of the Constitution in Connecticut had voted to assist Shays and had repeatedly attempted to secure paper emission legislation.[15] In a few letters and speeches against the Constitution the plaintive note of the agrarian is discernible. The opponents of the Constitution in Connecticut found no skilled champions such as led the fight in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts; and no such spirited discussion took place. The debates in the state ratifying convention were not recorded (save for a few fragments); but the contest in the legislature over the proposition to send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention showed that the resistance came from the smaller agrarian interests similar to those in Rhode Island and Massachusetts which had stood against the whole movement.

Mr. Granger from Suffield was opposed to the proposition to send delegates to Philadelphia because "he conceived it would be disagreeable to his constituents; he thought the liberties of the people would be endangered by it; ...and concluded by saying that he imagined these things would have a tendency to produce a regal government in this country." Mr. Humphrey from the inland town of Norfolk sided with Mr. Granger and "concluded by saying that he approved the wisdom and policy of Rhode Island in refusing to send delegates to the convention and that the conduct of that state in this particular, was worthy of imitation." Mr. Perkins of Enfield "was opposed to the measure and said that the state would send men that had been delicately bred and who were in affluent circumstances, that could not feel for the people in this day of distress."[16]

New York. -When it is remembered that the greatest piece of argumentation produced by the contest over ratification, The Federalist, was directed particularly to the electorate in New York, although widely circulated elsewhere, it will appear a work of supererogation to inquire whether the leaders in that commonwealth understood the precise nature of the social conflict which was being waged.[17] Nevertheless, it may be worth while to present Hamilton's analysis of it. On the side of the Constitution, he placed the "very great weight of influence of the persons who framed it, particularly in the universal popularity of General Washington - the good will of the commercial interest throughout the states which will give all its efforts to the establishment of a government capable of regulating, protecting, and extending the commerce of the Union - the good will of most men of property in the several states who wish a government of the Union able to protect them against domestic violence and the depredations which the democratic spirit is apt to make on property. - a strong belief in the people at large of the insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the existence of the Union."

Over against these forces in favor of the Constitution, Hamilton places the antagonism of some inconsiderable men in office under state governments, the influence of some considerable men playing the part of the demagogue for their own aggrandizement; - "and add to these causes the democratical jealousy of the people which may be alarmed at the appearance of institutions that may seem calculated to place the power of the community in a few hands and raise a few individuals to stations of great pre-eminence." [18]

New Jersey and Delaware. - The speedy ratification of the Constitution in these states gave no time for the development of a sharp antagonism, even had there been an economic basis for it. In the absence of this actual conflict over the Constitution we can hardly expect to find any consideration of the subject by contemporary writers of note.[19]

Pennsylvania. -The opposition between town and country, between personalty and realty in other words, was so marked in this commonwealth during the struggle over the ratification of the Constitution that it was patent to all observers and was the subject of frequent and extensive comment by leaders on both sides. On September 28, 1787, Tench Coxe wrote to Madison describing the disturbance over the resolution in the state legislature calling the ratifying convention, and after reciting the events of the day he added, "It appears from these facts that the Western people [i.e. the agrarians] have a good deal of jealousy about the new Constitution and it is very clear that the men who have been used to lead the Constitutional [or radical party] [20] are against it decidedly." [21] A month later Coxe again writes to Madison: "The opposition here has become more open. It is by those leaders of the constitutional [local radical] interest who have acted in concert with the Western interest. The people of the party in the city are chiefly federal, tho' not so I fear in the Counties." [22]

Writing about the same time from Philadelphia to Washington, Gouverneur Morris, said: "With respect to this state, I am far from being decided in my opinion that they will consent. It is true that the City and its Neighborhood was enthusiastic in the cause; but I dread the cold and sower temper of the back counties and still more the wicked industry of those who have long habituated themselves to live on the public, and cannot bear the idea of being removed from power and profit of state government which has been and still is the means of supporting themselves, their families, and their dependents." [23] Such comments on the nature of the alignment of forces might be multiplied from the writings of other Federalist leaders in Pennsylvania, but it appears to be unnecessary to say more.

The leaders on the other side were constantly discanting upon the opposition between town and country. The recalcitrant members of the legislature in their protest to the people against the hasty calling of the state convention declared, "We lamented at the time [of the selection of delegates to the national Convention] that a majority of our legislature appointed men to represent this state who were all citizens of Philadelphia, none of them calculated to represent the landed interests of Pennsylvania, and almost all of them of one political party, men who have been uniformly opposed to that [state] constitution for which you have on every occasion manifested your attachment." [24]

The author of the famous "Centinel" letters saw in the movement favorable to the new Constitution a design of "the wealthy and ambitious who in every community think they have a right to lord it over their fellow creatures." [25] In fact the most philosophic argument against the adoption of the new system on account of its intrinsic nature was made by the author of these letters.

At the opening of his series, Centinel inveighs against the precipitancy which characterized the movements of the Federalists, and then attacks the Constitution as the work of an active minority. "The late revolution," he says, "having effaced in a great measure all former habits and the present institutions are so recent that there exists not that great reluctance to innovation, so remarkable in old communities and which accords with reason, for the most comprehensive mind cannot foresee the full operation of material changes on civil polity. ...The wealthy and ambitious, who in every community think they have a right to lord it over their fellow creatures have availed themselves very successfully of this favorable disposition; for the people thus unsettled in their sentiments have been prepared to accede to any extreme of government. All the distresses and difficulties they experience, proceeding from various causes, have been ascribed to the impotency of the present confederation, and thence they have been led to expect full relief from the adoption of the proposed system of government ; and in the other event immediately ruin and annihilation as a nation." [26]

After warning his countrymen against being lulled into false security by the use of the great names of Washington and Franklin in support of the Constitution, Centinel takes up the fundamental element in the new system: the balance of powers as expounded in Adams' Defence of the Constitutions; and shows the inherent antagonism between "democracy” and the Federalist concept of government in a manner that would do honor to the warmest advocate of the initiative and referendum in our time. Mr. Adams' sine qua non of good government is three balancing powers; whose repelling qualities are to produce an equilibrium of interests and thereby promote the happiness of the whole community. He asserts that the administrators of every government will ever be actuated by views of private interest and ambition to the prejudice of the public good; that therefore the only effectual method to secure the rights of the people and promote their welfare is to create an opposition of interests between the members of two distinct bodies in the exercise of the powers of government, and balanced by those of a third. This hypothesis supposes human wisdom competent to the task of instituting three co-equal orders in government and a corresponding weight in the community to enable them respectively to exercise their several parts and whose views and interests should be so distinct as to prevent a coalition of any two of them for the destruction of the third. Mr. Adams, although he has traced the constitution of every form of government that ever existed, as far as history affords materials, has not been able to adduce a single instance of such a government; he indeed says the British constitution is such in theory but this is rather a confirmation that his principles are chimerical and not to be reduced to practice. If such an organization of power were practicable how long would it continue? Not a day-for there is so great a disparity in the talents, wisdom, and industry of mankind, that the scale would presently preponderate to one or the other body, and with every accession of power the means of further increase would be greatly extended. The state of society in England is much more favorable to such a scheme of government than that of America. There they have a powerful hereditary nobility, and real distinctions of rank and interests; but even there, for want of that perfect equality of power and distinction of interests in the three orders of government, they exist but in name; the only operative and efficient check upon the conduct of administration is the sense of the people at large. ...If the administrators of every government are actuated by views of private interest and ambition, how is the welfare and happiness of the community to be the result or such jarring adverse interests?" [27]

In opposition to the Adams-Madison theory of balanced economic interests and innocuous legislatures, which was the essence of the Federalist doctrine, Centinel expounded his reasons for believing that distinct property groups should not be set against one another in the government, and that trust in the political capacity of the broad undifferentiated mass of the community should be the basis of the Constitution; but it should be noted that his undifferentiated mass was composed largely of property holders. "I believe," he says "that it will be found that the form of government which holds those entrusted with power in the greatest responsibility to their constituents, the best calculated for freemen. A republican or free government can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous and where property is pretty equally divided. In such a government the people are sovereign and their sense or opinion is the criterion of every public measure; for when this ceases to be the case, the nature of the government is changed and an aristocracy, monarchy, or despotism will rise on its ruins. The highest responsibility is to be attained in a simple structure of government, for the great body of the people never steadily attend to the operations of government, and for the want of due information are liable to be imposed upon. If you complicate the plan by various orders, the people will be perplexed and divided in their sentiment about the sources of abuses or misconduct; some will impute it to the senate, others to the house of representatives, and so on, that the interposition of the people may be rendered imperfect or perhaps wholly abortive. But if imitating the constitution of Pennsylvania, you vest all the legislative power in one body of men (separating the executive and the judicial), elected for a short period, and necessarily excluded by rotation from permanency and guarded from precipitancy and surprise by delays imposed on its proceedings, you will create the most perfect responsibility; for then, whenever the people feel a grievance, they cannot mistake the authors and will apply the remedy with certainty and effect, discarding them at the next election." [28]

It is evident that a considerable number of the voters in Pennsylvania clearly understood the significance of the division of powers created by the Constitution. In a petition circulated and extensively signed by Philadelphia citizens immediately after the completion of the labors of the Convention and directed to the state ratifying convention, the memorialists expressed their approval of the Constitution, and added: "The division of the power of the United States into three branches gives the sincerest satisfaction to a great majority of our citizens, who have long suffered many inconveniences from being governed by a single legislature. All single governments are tyrannies - whether they be lodged in one man - a few men - or a large body of the people." [29]

Maryland. -The contest in Maryland over the ratification was keen and spirited and every side of the question was threshed out in newspaper articles and pamphlets.[30] Through all the controversy ran the recognition of the fact that it was a struggle between debtors and creditors, between people of substance and the agrarians. Alexander Hanson in his considerable tract in favor of the ratification, dedicated to Washington, treats the charge that the Constitution was an instrument of property as worthy of a dignified answer. "You have been told," he says, "that the proposed plan was calculated peculiarly for the rich. In all governments, not merely despotic, the wealthy must, in most things, find an advantage from the possession of that which is too much the end and aim of mankind. In the proposed plan there is nothing like a discrimination in their favor. ...Is it a just cause of reproach that the Constitution effectually secures property? Or would the objectors introduce a general scramble?" [31]

Recognizing the importance of the interests at stake, another Federalist writer, "Civis," in the Maryland Journal of February 1, 1788, appeals to the voters for delegates to the coming state convention to be circumspect in order to procure the ratification of the Constitution. He laments that "men of property, character, and abilities have too much retired from public employment since the conclusion of the war," but expresses the hope "that, in this all-important crisis, they will again step forth, with a true patriotic ardour, and snatch their dear country from the dreadful and devouring jaws of anarchy and ruin." He cautions the citizens against voting for undesirable persons: "The characters whom I would especially point out as your particular aversion, in the present critical conjuncture, are all those in desperate or embarrassed circumstances, who may have been advocates for paper money, the truck-bill, or insolvent act; and who may expect to escape in the general ruin of the country."

On the other hand many opponents of the Constitution in Maryland definitely declared the contest to be one between property and the people of little substance. Such was practically the view of Luther Martin[32] in basing his resistance on the ground that the new system prevented the states from interfering with property rights. The spirit of this opposition was also well reflected in a reply to the letter of "Civis," mentioned above, which took the form of an ironical appeal to the voters to support only men of property and standing for the coming state convention. "Choose no man in debt," it runs, "because being in debt proves that he wanted understanding to take care of his own affairs. . . . A man in debt can scarcely be honest. ...Vote for no man who was in favor of paper money, for no honest man was for that measure. None but debtors and desperate wretches advocated the diabolical scheme. . . . Elect no man who supported the law allowing insolvent debtors to discharge their persons from perpetual imprisonment, by honestly delivering up all their property to the use of their creditors. The legislature have no right to interfere with private contracts, and debtors might safely trust to the humanity and clemency of their creditors who will not keep them in gaol all their lives, unless they deserve it. . . . Men of great property are deeply interested in the welfare of the state; and they are the most competent judges of the form of government, best calculated to preserve their property, and such liberties as it is proper for the common and inferior class of people to enjoy. Men of wealth possess natural and acquired understanding, as they manifest by amassing riches, or by keeping and increasing those they derive from their ancestors, and they are best acquainted with the wants, the wishes, and desires of the people, and they are always ready to relieve them in their private and public stations." [33]

Virginia. -Madison remarked that he found in his state "men of intelligence, patriotism, property, and independent circumstances"[34] divided over the ratification of the Constitution although in some other commonwealths, men of this stamp were " zealously attached " to the new government. This general reflection is not borne out however by some of his contemporaries. Marshall, as we have noted above,[35] regarded the conflict as being between two rather sharply divided parties, those who favored maintaining public and private rights in their full integrity and those who proposed to attack them through legislation.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag Charles Lee claimed that " except a few characters, the members [of the Virginia convention] with the most knowledge and abilities and personal influence are also in favor of the Constitution." [36] In the opposition Patrick Henry put the whole mass of small farmers. "I believe it to be a fact," he declared in the Virginia convention, "that the great body of yeomanry are in decided opposition to it. I may say with confidence that, for nineteen counties adjacent to each other, nine-tenths of the people are conscientiously opposed to it. I may be mistaken but I give you it as my opinion; and my opinion is founded on personal knowledge in some measure, and other good authority. ...You have not solid reality - the hearts and hands of the men who are to be governed." [37]

North Carolina. - It would have been strange if the leaders for and against the Constitution in this commonwealth had not taken cognizance of the nature of the conflict they were waging. The popular paper money and debtor party had been powerful and active and had aroused the solicitude of all men of substance; and the representatives of the latter, as practical men, knew what they were doing in supporting an overthrow of the old system. "It is essential to the interests of agriculture and commerce," exclaimed Davie, in the state ratifying convention, "that the hands of the states should be bound from making paper money, instalment laws, and pine-barren acts. By such iniquitous laws the merchant or farmer may be defrauded of a considerable part of his just claims. But in the federal court, real money will be recovered with that speed which is necessary to accommodate the circumstances of individuals." [38] Speaking on the same theme, paper money, Governor Johnston said: "Every man of property - every man of considerable transactions, whether a merchant, planter, mechanic, or of any other condition - must have felt the baneful influence of that currency." [39]

The recognition of the nature of the clash of interests is manifest in scattered correspondence, as well as in speeches. For example, in a letter to Iredell, January 15, 1788, Maclaine says: "In New Hanover county the people if left to themselves are in favor of the change. Some demagogues, a few persons who are in debt, and every public officer, except the clerk of the county court, are decidedly against any change; at least against any that will answer the purpose. Our friend Huske is the loudest man in Wilmington against the new constitution. Whether ambition, or avarice, or a compound of both actuates him I leave you to judge. . . . I expect in a few weeks The Federalist in a volume. He is certainly a judicious and ingenious writer, though not well calculated for the common people. ...Your old friend Huske and Col. Read have joined all the low scoundrels in the County [i.e. the country party] and by every underhand means are prejudicing the common people against the new constitution. The former is a candidate for the county." [40]

This conflict between the town and country is explained by Iredell's biographer: "Soon after the [Revolutionary] War commenced a feud between the town of Wilmington and the county of New Hanover. The leading men' upon 'Change' were either Tories or those whose lukewarmness had provoked suspicion: the agrestic population could but illy brook their prosperity. From that day to the present [1857] the politics of the burgess have been antagonistical to those of the former. The merchants have ever been the predominant class in the borough: daily intercourse has enabled them with facility to form combinations that have given them the control of the moneyed institutions while their patronage has added a potent influence with the press."[41]

South Carolina. -The materials bearing on the ratification of the Constitution in South Carolina which are available to the northern student are relatively scanty.[42] Nevertheless, in view of the marked conflict between the agrarian back-country and the commercial seaboard, it may easily be imagined that it was not unobserved by the leaders in the contest over ratification who championed the respective regions. This antagonism came out in a pamphlet war over the amendment of the state constitution which was being waged about the time of the adoption of the new federal system. In this war, "Appius," the spokesman for the reform party is reported to have declared that "wealth ought not to be represented; that a rich citizen ought to have fewer votes than his poor neighbour; that wealth should be stripped of as many advantages as possible and it will then have more than enough; and finally, that in giving property the power of protecting itself, government becomes an aristocracy."[43]

"Appius," after this general statement of his theory, then explains wherein the distribution of economic interests engendered antagonism in politics in that state. "The upper and lower countries, have opposite habits and views in almost every particular. One is accustomed to expense, the other to frugality. One will be inclined to numerous offices, large salaries, and an expensive government; the other, from the moderate fortunes of the inhabitants, and their simple way of life will prefer low taxes, small salaries, and a very frugal civil establishment. One imports almost every article of consumption and pays for it in produce; the other is far removed from navigation, has very little to export, and must therefore supply its own wants. Consequently one will favour commerce, the other manufactures; one wishes slaves, the other will be better without them."[44] In view of this opposition of interests, "Appius" holds that there should be a redistribution of representatives which will give the back-country its proper proportion and enable the majority to rule.

To this argument Ford replies in the language of Federalism. The rights of property are anterior to constitutions; the state constitution recognizes and guarantees these rights; the substantial interests of the minority must be forever immune from attacks by majorities. Otherwise the weaker party in society," he declares, "would literally have no right whatever: neither life, liberty, or property would be guaranteed to them by the social compact, seeing the majority are not bound by it, but might destroy the whole and by the same rule any part of it at pleasure. ... Virtue and vice would lose their distinction; the most vicious views would be sanctified if pursued by the greater number, and the most virtuous resistance punishable in the less. If the principles of justice are derived from a higher source than human institutions (and who will deny it?) I contend that the majority have no right to infringe them."[45] Hence, any change in the system which deprives the seaboard minority of their preponderance in the state government cannot be too severely reprobated.

It can hardly be supposed that an economic antagonism in the state that was so clearly recognized by publicists in 1794, and that manifested itself in the vote on the ratification of the Federal Constitution six years before, was overlooked in the earlier contest.

Indeed, evidence that it was not appears in a pamphlet written in defence of the Constitution by Dr. David Ram- say, who was afterward a member of the ratifying convention in South Carolina. He particularly warns his fellow-citizens against the debtor element. "Be on your guard," he says, "against the misrepresentations of men who are involved in debt; such may wish to see the Constitution rejected because of the following clause, no state shall emit bills of credit, make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts, pass any ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.' This will doubtless bear hard on debtors who wish to defraud their creditors, but it will be real service to the honest part of the community. Examine well the characters and circumstances of men who are averse to the new constitution. Perhaps you will find that the above clause is the real ground of the opposition of some of them, though they may artfully cover it with a splendid profession of zeal for state privileges and general liberty."[46]

Georgia. -The speedy and unanimous ratification of the Constitution in Georgia seems to have prevented any very vigorous pamphleteering on the question. Indeed, the energies of the state were being strained to the limit in preparing for defence against the Indians, and there was little time for theorizing. Foreign invasion generally silences domestic discord.

Conclusions[edit]

At the close of this long and arid survey - partaking of the nature of catalogue - it seems worth while to bring together the important conclusions for political science which the data presented appear to warrant.

The movement for the Constitution of the United States was originated and carried through principally by four groups of personalty interests which had been adversely affected under the Articles of Confederation: money, public securities, manufactures, and trade and shipping.

The first firm steps toward the formation of the Constitution were taken by a small and active group of men immediately interested through their personal possessions in the outcome of their labors.

No popular vote was taken directly or indirectly on the proposition to call the Convention which drafted the Constitution.

A large propertyless mass was, under the prevailing suffrage qualifications, excluded at the outset from participation (through representatives) in the work of framing the Constitution.

The members of the Philadelphia Convention which drafted the Constitution were, with a few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.

The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.

The major portion of the members of the Convention are on record as recognizing the claim of property to a special and defensive position in the Constitution.

In the ratification, of the Constitution, about three-fourths of the adult males failed to vote on the question, having abstained from the elections at which delegates to the state conventions were chosen, either on account of their indifference or their disfranchisement by property qualifications.

The Constitution was ratified by a vote of probably not more than one-sixth of the adult males. It is questionable whether a majority of the voters participating in the elections for the state conventions in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, and South Carolina, actually approved the ratification of the Constitution.

The leaders who supported the Constitution in the ratifying conventions represented the same economic groups as the members of the Philadelphia Convention; and in a large number of instances they were also directly and personally interested in the outcome of their efforts.

In the ratification, it became manifest that the line of cleavage for and against the Constitution was between substantial personalty interests on the one hand and the small farming and debtor interests on the other.

The Constitution was not created by "the whole people" as the jurists have said; neither was it created by "the states" as Southern nullifiers long contended; but it was the work of a consolidated group whose interests knew no state boundaries and were truly national in their scope.


  1. Writings. Vol. I, p. 423.
  2. Address to the Freemen of America," The American Museum for June, 1787, Vol. I, p. 494.
  3. New Hampshire Spy, November 30, 1787.
  4. American Museum, July, 1788, Vol. IV, p. 85.
  5. Above, p. 156.
  6. McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheaton, 316; below, p. 299.
  7. Vol. II (1850 ed.), p. 99 ff.
  8. Farrand, Records. Vol. III. p. 232. Speaking of New Hampshire, Madison says. ..The opposition [to the Constitution]. I understand. is composed precisely of the same description of characters with that of Massachusetts and stands contrasted to all the wealth, abilities, and respectability of the State." Writings. Vol. I, p. 383.
  9. Documentary History of the Constitution. Vol. IV. p. 442.
  10. Report of the Manuscripts Commission of the American Historical Association, December 20, 1896, p. 754. A writer in the Chronicle of Freedom (reprinted in the Massachusetts Centinel, October, 27, 1787) complains of the dangers to the freedom of the press from the new Constitution and continues: "One thing, however, is calculated to alarm our fears on this head; - I mean the fashionable language which now prevails so much and is so frequent in the mouths of some who formerly held very different opinions; -That common people have no business to trouble themselves about government." The Massachusetts Centinel (November 24, 1787) declares it to be "a notorious fact that three of the principle enemies of the proposed constitution were heart and hand with the insurgents last winter."
  11. Life and Letters, Vol. I, pp. 314 ff.
  12. Harding, The Federal Constitution in Massachusetts, pp. 123-124.
  13. Ford, Essays on the Constitution. p. 139.
  14. Ford, Essays on the Constitution, pp. 144 ff.
  15. Libby, op. cit., p. 58.
  16. Connecticut Courant, May 21, 1787.
  17. See above, p. 156.
  18. Documentary History of the Constitution, Vol. IV, p. 288. On the antagonism in New York see some clues afforded in an article in The Magazine of American History, April, 1893, pp. 326 ff.
  19. Dickinson's Fabius letters were printed after the ratification by Delaware and were directed to the "general public" rather than fellow-citizens in that commonwealth. Among the opponents to the Constitution, he put "men without principles or fortunes who think they may have a chance to mend their circumstances with impunity under a weak government." Ford, Pamphlets on the Constitution, p.166.
  20. See Harding, "Party struggles over the First Pennsylvania Constitution," American Historical Association Report (1894).
  21. Documentary History of the Constitution, Vol. IV, p. 305.
  22. Ibid., Vol. IV, p. 339.
  23. Ibid., Vol. IV, p. 358.
  24. McMaster and Stone, op. cit., p. 73.
  25. Ibid., p. 567.
  26. Ibid., p. 367.
  27. McMaster and Stone, op. cit., pp. 568-569.
  28. Ibid., pp. 569-570.
  29. Connecticut Courant, Oct. 1, 1787.
  30. See the valuable articles on "Maryland's Adoption of the Constitution," by Dr. Steiner in the American Historical Review, Vol. V.
  31. Ford, Pamphlets on the Constitution, p. 254.
  32. See above, p. 205.
  33. Maryland Journal, March 21, 1788.
  34. Documentary History of the Constitution, Vol. IV, p. 398. For the economics of this, see above, p. 30.
  35. P. 295.
  36. lbid., p. 577.
  37. Elliot, Debates, Vol. III, p. 592. See W.C. Ford, "The Federal Constitution in Virginia," in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for October, 1903.
  38. Elliot, Debates, Vol. IV. p. 159.
  39. Elliot, Debates, Vol. IV, p. 90.
  40. McRee, Life and Correspondence of James Iredell, Vol. II, pp. 216, 219.
  41. McRee, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 164 note.
  42. See W. A. Schaper, "Sectionalism in South Carolina," American Historical Association Report (1900), Vol. I.
  43. Summary by T. Ford, The Constitutionalist (1794), p. 21.
  44. Ford, op. cit., pp. 21-22.
  45. Op. cit., p. 13.
  46. Ford, Pamphlets on the Constitution, p. 379. On May 24, 1788, after the Constitution had been approved in South Carolina, General Pinckney wrote to Rufus King, saying, "The Anti-Federalists had been most mischievously industrious in prejudicing the minds of our citizens against the Constitution. Pamphlets, speeches, & Protests from the disaffected in Pennsylvania were circulated throughout the state, particularly in the back country." King, Life and Correspondence, Vol. I, p. 329.