The Founders’ Constitution
Not long ago a friend told me of a conversation with a well-known senator from a western state who, after lagging behind in support for a presidential bid, asked, “Why don’t I get more support from conservatives?” This led to a philosophical discussion as to why many were hesitant to support him feeling that he did not have a clear and unmistakable understanding of conservative and constitutional perspectives. When my friend challenged him on his position on several items that have come before the United States Senate and why he would support such positions when they were clearly opposite from the intention of the Founders, the senator replied that it is rather impossible to determine with any degree of certainty what the original intent of the Founders was.
At this point my friend said to me, “I realized, contrary to my previous belief, this man has never really had a firm understanding of the basic principles of good government and has never really read and pondered the reasoning of the Founders which led them to so many remarkable problem-solving precepts.” He said, “I think he is teachable but we have a work to do.”
The Need to Personally Visit with Our Elected Officials
The experience of my friend points out the urgent need which has been taught to us over and over again for many years, that is, that we need to personally visit with our state legislators and federal lawmakers from time to time and discuss with them those things we hold most dear. We need to ask them about their stands on issues and in as positive and supportive a manner as possible we need to teach them correct principles. No other approach can assure that these people remain on our side when they get to their respective capitals and begin to feel the pressure to yield. Remember the story of Davy Crockett getting some direction-changing teachings from a constituent when he went home to be reelected. (See the video, “Not Yours to Give” from NCCS)
The Need to be Personally Prepared for these Visits
Needless to say, in order for such a visit to be effective, we must be founded ourselves on the rock of liberty. We must understand the Founders’ position and be able to reason as they did. They did not hear any objections that we do not hear today. In fact, I believe the forces that would destroy our liberty are more powerful today than in the Founders day. It was only by their preparation that they were able to lead the people to adopt and follow correct principles. Since we face a foe of greater magnitude, must we not be at least as well prepared as they if we are to prevail?
The Basic Manuals of a Constitutionalist
For most Americans, the two books The 5000 Year leap and The Making of America provide the essentials needed to understand the reasoning of the Founders on these issues. But from time to time we are asked, “What do you have which will give me more background on certain constitutional doctrines?”
NCCS has acquired a limited number of sets of five volumes entitled The Founders’ Constitution. This set is a collection of documents, speeches, notes, and letters of the Founders in their entirety. It is a project undertaken for the Bicentennial in 1987 by a team at the University of Chicago.
The Founders’ Constitution
In their introduction, the editors explain how these volumes fits both “investigators” and “browsers”:
- “This collection of thoughts, opinions, and arguments of the Founders is meant to be useful to different kinds of readers, and hence useful in a variety of ways. How one uses this book will depend on the energy, time, and needs of the particular individual. Those desiring a general view of the state of the question that ultimately took the form of a specific phrase or clause in the Constitution will find materials assembled under the article, section, and clause numbers of that provision. Readers wishing to pursue their inquiries further are directed-within and at the end of each unit or chapter-to the location of other primary materials that they might find germane.”
The editors knew well that there is a growing number of Americans who think such a study is a waste of time. They in fact, itemized three major objections to such a work.
First, that “we have no way of recovering the intentions of a widely scattered and long-since-dead generation of political actors. Being utterly dependent on the chance survival of arguments committed to paper, we are left in the dark concerning whatever else was thought but not said, said but not written, written but not saved, saved but not found.. Very seldom indeed, then, can we speak with simple confidence of what this or that provision meant for eighteenth-century Americans.”
Second, “the search for a single state of mind is unhistorical. As a record of reasons and arguments, then, a collection of surviving paper is necessarily slanted.” In other words, who says their view is the correct one?
Third, the thinking of the Founders is simply irrelevant to our time. “If the Constitution is to be a viable instrument of governance, then, it must cut itself free from its eighteenth-century moorings. The thought of the Founders, even to the extent it is discoverable, may be curious, even at times amusing or maddening, but it cannot he binding [on us in our modern day].”
Apparently, some of the editors of The Founders’ Constitution themselves held the opinions just enumerated-until they read the Founders. They wrote, “If our own experience is any guide, prompted neither by antiquarianism nor by simple piety, we have come to discover pleasures, second thoughts, and better understanding in matters that we once believed we understood tolerably well.. Any fair-minded reader can discover that those actors- politicians, land speculators, philosophers, village-pump orators, historians, ordinary and not-so-ordinary lawyers, common folk with little or no schooling, statesmen with analytical powers developed through long study and closely observed experience-that all those are people whose thoughts are worth knowing better. Far from being struck by their simplemindedness or paranoia, we are impressed rather by their political literacy, the vigor and the articulateness of their arguments, and the absence of condescension from their complex, even sophisticated, reasoning. The level of their public political discourse is simply remarkable.” The editors identified the Founders as assiduous record-keepers, preservers of documents, copiers of correspondence. They concluded it is as though the Founders want us to examine their work. “The archivist-founder is a founder who invites his successors to scrutinize his principles and acts. It was and remains a standing invitation.”
Finally, as though the University of Chicago editors had reached a startling new conclusion they urge all Americans to reconsider the wisdom of the Founders: “What does strike us as sadly neglected is the Constitution itself, seen as the precipitate of hard thinking by men of remarkable intelligence and seriousness. This collection is intended to make it easier for their intelligent and serious successors of today to come to see that for themselves. In the process, we hope, the Founders’ reasons will be reexamined and their questions reconsidered, and their hope that among a self-governing people liberty and learning would support each other will come closer to fulfillment.”
An Example: Using an Electoral System to elect a President
To help you see the value of this set of books, consider the following example. In Volume 2 of The Founders’ Constitution, under Article 2, Section 1, clauses 2 and 3, eleven (11) different documents (covering 27 pages) are given for the reader’s study.
- William Blackstone, from his Commentaries written in 1765. Blackstone’s reasoning was a powerful influence in convincing the Founders that the chief magistrate had to be elected. However, he said, popular elections are too frequently brought about by influence, partiality, and artifice and would most surely result in a decision by the law of arms. Blackstone did not suggest a solution, but reading his words brought the Founders a step closer to a unique device -the electoral system. His article represents brilliant reasoning.
- Records of the Federal Convention , 1787. Read the Founders debate on one of the most lengthy questions in the convention-how we should elect the president. Should he be elected by the Congress, the governors, the people, etc. Over 60 different discussions and votes were taken. See who proposed and who objected and why. Also, see how the states voted on each proposal. This document gives anyone an appreciation for what they went through.
- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper No. 68, 1788. “This process of election [the Founders’ electoral system] affords a moral certainty, that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man, who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
- James Madison, Observations on Jefferson’s draft of a Constitution for Virginia 1788. In this document, Madison shows Jefferson the error of having a state governor chosen by the legislature and proposes perhaps even an electoral system similar to that in the U.S. Constitution which was in the process of ratification. Madison also reasons against more than one term of service.
- Alexander Hamilton to James Wilson , 1789. Hamilton expresses fear that Adams may end up as first president. He actually presents a scenario for that to happen if Adams gets a unanimous vote and a few do not vote for Washington. He proposes a scheme to drain off a few votes from Adams.
- [Selection of Electors, 1796-1832], McPherson v. Blacker , 1892. Have you ever wanted to know how states selected the presidential electors before the dominance of political parties? This document reviews how different states chose electors for the first few elections-some by at-large popular vote, some by district vote, and some by the state legislature. This document is important to show that the electoral system really did work well when used as the Founders envisioned.
- Senate, Electoral College , 1800. Even at this early time some members of congress were expressing reservations as to the method of appointing presidential electors and perhaps even the necessity of having them. This document gives the powerful arguments of Charles Pinckney and Abraham Baldwin, two senators who were also at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, to preserve the wise system as given in the Constitution.
- Gouverneur Morris to President of New York Senate , 1802. Gouverneur Morris, another member of the 1787 Convention, defends the Electoral system as originally envisioned. He says that while there are perhaps some deficiencies, so are there with any mode of electing the president, but the present system is judged to have the fewest.
- Rufus King, Amendment to the constitution, Senate , 1816. A senator had proposed an amendment to the Constitution to take the election of the president out of the hands of the people and their presidential electors. Mr. King, another original Founder, strenuously objected. This article is valuable in that it shows that these ideas had to be constantly defended-and were by those who were witnesses to the miracle at Philadelphia in 1787.
- James Madison to George Hays , 1823. Madison expresses his agreement that the choosing of presidential electors should be done by districts within each state to better reflect the will of the people. He even suggests wording for a constitutional amendment. Once again, a Founder remains strongly in favor of the electoral system.
- Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution , 1833. Although not one of the original Founders, Justice Story is eloquent in his defense of the original meaning and intent of the Constitution. By 1833, the rise of political parties had caused mischief in the electoral process-“that the electors are now chosen wholly with reference to particular candidates and are silently pledged to vote for them.” Justice Story says this action leaves nothing to the electors to choose, but to merely register votes to which they are already pledged. He calls such action political usurpation, dishonorable to the individual, and a fraud upon his constituents.
Hopefully, you can get a little taste of the incredible value of The Founders’ Constitution to the serious student. It will be an invaluable companion to The Making of America in teaching and influencing our public officials to stay with the Founders.