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Friday, August 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: Witnesses at the Creation

The 200th anniversary of the writing of the Constitution in 1787 is almost upon us. With its checks and balances, its provision for the minority rights of states and individuals, as well as for a protection of the whole when it comes to defending the Federal borders, the document has lasted longer than any other written constitution of our time.

What makes the Constitution unique is fully explained by Richard B. Morris of Columbia University in Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 279 pp., $16.95). The document was the handiwork of fifty-five men who, in the steaming hot summer of 1787, met in the State House of Philadelphia in secret sessions behind closed doors. Exceeding their instructions to do nothing more than amend the Articles of Confederation that bound in loose embrace the thirteen states that had fought the revolution, the fifty-five delegates came up with something that was part nationalistic, part federative, and part a defense of the inalienable rights of individual citizens.

Fortunately James Madison of Virginia kept a meticulous record of deliberations that went on for four months. It was Madison who, as a bait for acceptance by the states, promised the Bill of Rights that defined freedom of the press and religion and guaranteed life, liberty, and property (the traditional “rights of Englishmen”) to anybody who was free born. (The founders had to get around the issue of slavery somehow, which they did by postponing the abolition of the slave trade and leaving black manumission up to the states.)

In 1787 the thirteen states, stretched out along the Atlantic seaboard, were struggling with depression. The farmers of the back country, oppressed by their debts, had taken to open rebellion. States were printing their own paper money, which quickly became worthless. There was no uniformity of import duties, and the states were setting tariffs against each other. John Jay of New York had negotiated a good treaty of peace with Britain, which extended the so-called Northwest Territories to the banks of the Mississippi. But the British were slow to evacuate territory beyond the Appalachians. Meanwhile the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, the Qaddafis of their day, were seizing American ships and holding their crews for ransom.

The times were ripe for a government that would be empowered to collect the taxes needed to pay for an army and to build a navy capable of dealing with pirates. There were plenty to believe, with Alexander Hamilton, that a federal government should assume the debts of the states and take responsibility for a national currency. And the abolition of internal tariffs seemed as necessary to commerce as the building of bridges across rivers that obstructed north-south travel. But, though all the objective circumstances favored the quick ratification of the Constitution, which gave small states such as Delaware equal representation in the upper legislative chamber with the big states of New York and Pennsylvania, there was a considerable ground swell in favor of sticking to the old Articles of Confederation.

It was to combat the ground swell that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay undertook to write the Federalist Papers, which were presented to newspaper readers as the works of “Publius.” Thomas Jefferson, writing to Madison, praised the Federalist Papers as “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Much of Morris’ book is devoted to sustaining Jefferson’s judgment. The portraits and life stories of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay are excellent.

Modern Applications

Our Secretary of Education, William Bennett, has been making it a practice of giving lectures to students on the Federalist Papers. Their importance to American history is obvious. But who, in our political science faculties, has seen fit to apply the thinking of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay to the struggles of the outer world to achieve nation-hoods that might solve their economic problems without infringing the rights of individuals?

The question of South Africa leaps immediately to mind. Here we have collection of tribes, including the white tribe of the descendants of the Boer trekkers. The Zulus, 6 million strong, are one of the biggest tribes. They don’t want to entrust their fortunes to any “one man-one vote” majority of lesser tribes any more than the white tribe of President Botha wants to submit property and business rights to the whims of 51 per cent of a black vote bent on expropriation.

If there were a South African James Madison, he would be counseling his countrymen, black and white, to regard the separate tribes as the equivalent of the thirteen states of federalist America. There would be “one man- one vote” for taxation and foreign policy purposes, and for the election of a president. But property rights would remain vested with tribes and individuals.

The genius of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay resided in their ability to limit “one man-one vote” democracy to such things as funding the national debt, building forts on borders, paying the army, regulating internal commerce, levying tariffs, and providing for a court system and the election of representatives. But “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were beyond the vote, and property could not be taken without “due process.”

There is no reason why this way of thinking can’t be applied everywhere. Let the year 1987 be given over to it.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.