Authors: James MacGregor Burns
It was Madison’s capacity to combine deep political and psychological understanding—as in his summary statement of the strategy of “supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives”—that would justify his reputation as both the intellectual and political father of the Constitution.
The opponents of the Constitution still declined to yield to this Federalist display of political and intellectual power. They had their own strength to fall back on, their own networks of friendly preachers, politicians, and newspaper editors. The anti-Federalist leaders were far less celebrated nationally than Washington, Franklin et al., but Madison himself was struck by the large number of “respectable names” he found among his adversaries. They had their own ideological strategy—to charge the framers of the Constitution with not only ignoring the needs of liberty but actively conspiring against it—and they polished their political tactics of dividing and eviscerating their adversaries as the struggle over the Constitution dissolved into numberless state and local encounters, so that the great national issue would be sucked into the whirlpools of local and state politics. Attacking parts of the Constitution rather than the whole charter, the anti-Federalists demanded not the repudiation of Philadelphia but the right of state conventions to pass amendments to the Constitution and in effect to gain a
convention. Nothing distressed the Framers more than this prospect. To return to Philadelphia for another session would throw them on the defensive, inundate them in a sea of incompatible amendments, and produce a far weaker national charter. The Federalists would accept
for the new Congress under the Constitution to consider, but amendments to the existing draft—never!
And so the issue was put to the American people in the late fall of
1787—put not to a great mass public, though large numbers of voters would turn out to elect state convention delegates, put not to small national or state elites, though established leaders would exercise heavy influence in many of the contests, but put to about 1,200 delegates who would be elected to the state conventions in hundreds of tiny contests across the thousand-mile length of the American states. A first cadre in Philadelphia had written a charter; a second cadre of state leadership was quick to join the battle; now the issue would depend on a third cadre, composed largely of local politicians from the American backlands—the western counties, the farm area, the piedmont, the mountain valleys—as well as from the urban and cosmopolitan areas. These men must analyze a complex document, follow the debates in press and pulpit and public house, and manage also to get elected as delegates. The future of the republic would turn on the perspicacity and vision of country politicians, circuit-riding lawyers, money-minded men of commerce, cracker-barrel philosophers—on a critical mass of men who would have to lift their sights above gables and chimney pots and see their way into the possibilities of nationhood.
The Federalists exulted over smashing victories in several of the smaller states that acted early on ratification. The Delaware convention voted unanimously for the new charter on December 7, 1787, followed by similar votes in the New Jersey and Georgia delegations within a month. But Pennsylvania had acted in the meantime, and the fate of the Constitution in this big state, considered to be heavily pro-Federalist, warned the friends of the Constitution that trouble lay ahead. In no state had the charter been more intensely debated than in Pennsylvania, with its plethora of newspapers and of printers eager to publish pamphlets and broadsides. In no state was the press more one-sidedly pro-Federalist, nor were so many thousands of petitions submitted in behalf of the new plan of government. But the anti-Federalists were organized too, prepared to employ the tactics of dissection and delay, and they seized on a procedural incident to pose a moral argument against the Framers.
The incident came the day after the Congress, still sitting in New York City, voted to transmit the Constitution to the states. An express rider galloped through the night to put the resolution into the hands of the Pennsylvania Assembly, with its impatient Federalist majority. The opponents of the Federalists were also prepared, armed with a provision of the Pennsylvania constitution that required two-thirds of the members, rather than the usual majority, to make up a quorum. When the Assembly met that morning the Federalists found the enemy absent—hence no quorum.
Indignant, the majority ordered the sergeant at arms to “collect the absent members.” The sergeant and his minions proceeded to track down the errant assemblymen in the streets and boardinghouses of Philadelphia. Two men were finally cornered, hustled by the sergeant and some zealous citizens into the Assembly hall, and thrust into their seats. When one made a bolt for the door, his way was blocked by a mob. Armed now with their quorum, the Federalists pushed through a measure for the election of convention delegates within six weeks and the holding of the convention two weeks after that.
It was a skirmish won by the Federalists, at the risk of losing the battle. Reading about the affair in the newspapers or in letters from Philadelphia, anti-Federalists charged that the Framers were trying to shove the new instrument through without adequate popular discussion. Why the rush? The Pennsylvania Federalists, sure of their majority, pressed ahead in the hope that Pennsylvania would be the first large state to ratify the Constitution. Obscured by the clamor was the fact that the Pennsylvanians were conducting an intensive and searching analysis of the charter throughout the fall, in the long process of calling the convention, choosing a new Assembly, electing convention delegates, and debating the Constitution in the convention. In mid-December the convention voted to ratify the Constitution, 46-23, but the Federalist cause was tarnished again when rioting broke out in Carlisle, where James Wilson was burned in effigy and hundreds of militiamen advanced on the town with a threat to liberate political prisoners.
It was no surprise that Wilson—the only delegate to the national constitutional convention who took part in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention—should have exhibited his brilliance as he marshaled support for the charter. The test was whether the “average” person could adequately cope with a document of such complexity. Robert Whitehill was typical of the plain-spoken, clear-minded men from all parts of the country who stood up and debated with the more celebrated. The new Constitution, he told his fellow delegates, would lead to a consolidated government dangerous to the people’s liberties. The words “We the people of the United States,” he said, proved that “the old foundation of the Union is destroyed, the principle of confederation excluded, and a new unwieldy system of consolidated empire is set up upon the ruins of the present compact between the states…It is declared that the agreement of nine states shall be sufficient to carry the new system into operation, and, consequently, to abrogate the old one. Then, Mr. President, four of the present confederated states may not be comprehended in the compact;
shall we, sir, force these dissenting states into the measure?” Wilson and the other Pennsylvania delegates had been authorized to strengthen the Confederation Congress but “they have overthrown that government which they were called upon to amend.” So forcefully did Whitehill—long viewed as a run-of-the-mill politician—pose the issue of liberty under the new Constitution that Wilson, in answering him, argued on Whitehill’s ground.
With the ratifications by four middle and southern states, the epicenter of the struggle moved north as New England states prepared to hold conventions. Delegates gathered in the imposing Hartford State House during the first week of January for a session that the ruling Federalists planned to convert into a demonstration of strong leadership, as a model for the Yankees farther north. A demonstration it was, as the friends of the Constitution massed their strength in the convention, 128-40, while the anti-Federalists complained that they had been “brow beaten by many of those Cicero’es as they think themselves & others of Superior rank” who had indulged in “Shuffleing & Stamping of feet, caughing Halking Spitting & Whispering.”
Massachusetts would be a different story. In no state save Virginia did the two sides seem so well matched at every level of leadership: A solid phalanx of Federalists—former Governor Bowdoin, Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge fame, Fisher Ames, Francis Dana, and three delegates fresh from Philadelphia—confronted a locally prestigious cohort of anti-Federalists such as Elbridge Gerry, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives James Warren, and, it was expected, the renowned Samuel Adams with his riding friend Governor John Hancock.
Gerry especially was to be feared: he had served in the constitutional convention, he had heard all the arguments, he had rejected the charter. Adams was an enigma. A Harvard graduate, an organizer of the Sons of Liberty, agitator for independence, longtime politician, he was both ideologue and wire puller, both a government man and an agitator for the cause of liberty against government. Hancock was a trimmer. The first delegate to sign the Declaration of Independence, the first governor of the state of Massachusetts, he had become immensely popular in Boston, where he was probably the richest man of his generation, and in the hinterland, on which he had bestowed free Bibles in abundance. Arrayed behind the noted leaders of both sides was the “third cadre” of county and local politicians, lawyers, judges, convention delegates, and others who had sharpened their political rhetoric and perceptions in twenty years of almost continuous disputes over issues of revolution, independence,
Regulation, state constitution making, and now constitution ratifying for the nation.
Gerry opened with a letter to the Massachusetts legislature that intoned the familiar litany of the dangerous blending of executive, legislative, and judicial power, lack of provision for rotation of office, senators virtually appointed for life—but returned again and again to charges of lack of protection for rights of conscience, liberty of the press, trial by jury—in short, the lack of a bill of rights. Gerry’s style was “too sublime and florid” for certain of the “common people,” some Albany Federalists said. But his attack on the alleged chicanery, intrigue, duplicity, and imbecility of the framers of the Constitution opened the Massachusetts struggle on a note of rancor.
Boston—commercial, cosmopolitan, seafaring, internationalist Boston—was a hotbed of Federalist agitation. Most of its eight newspapers steadily praised the new Constitution, ranging from sober analysis of its provisions to castigations of its opponents as ignorant, shortsighted, weak-headed, bad-hearted,
. It was an age of invective, and few paid particular attention when a Federalist denounced opponents as “blind, positive, conceited sons of bitches” who deserved roasting in hell. When the
broke the press phalanx and attacked the Constitution, Federalist merchants pulled out their advertising and Federalist readers canceled their subscriptions. Why should we finance attacks on our own opinions? one of them asked.
The opponents of the Constitution in Massachusetts were part of a nationwide network, though far less extensive than the Federalists’. As if he needed any coaching, Samuel Adams received letters from Richard Henry Lee urging that the new Constitution “be bottomed upon a Declaration or bill of Rights.” Lee felt free to press his views on Adams because he had “long toiled with you my dear friend in the Vineyard of liberty…” Like the Federalists, critics of the Constitution had their own pulpits—the town meetings that would elect convention delegates from the country areas of Massachusetts, often with instructions on how to vote. Anti-Federalist feeling ran strong in scores of towns in western and central Massachusetts, where the grievances that erupted in Shays’s Rebellion (as it had come to be called)—and the memories of its suppression—still rankled. Sometimes the Federalists prevailed in the hinterland only to be accused of ramming the Constitution down the “throats of others” in the spirit of Pennsylvania. In Sheffield the leading Federalist was accused of a hat trick: “Instead of seting it”—the hat for collecting ballots—“fair & open on the Table as usual,” he “held it in his Left hand Pressed Close
to his breast…” The pattern of seacoast Federalism and inland opposition also appeared in Maine, then part of Massachusetts. The election of convention delegates reflected this split. Federalists scored so heavily in eastern towns that Gerry himself was beaten in Cambridge, and James Warren in Milton, but a “cloud” of anti-Federalists were elected inland, and Adams and Hancock won in Boston.
In mid-January—just a year after troops had moved west to subdue Shays and his men—350 delegates were arriving in Boston by carriage and sleigh. The meeting house on Milk Street had been enlarged to seat several hundred spectators, with a special gallery for newspaper reporters. The audience watched a Federalist minority led by skillful publicists and parliamentarians outmaneuver an apparent anti-Constitution majority. Evidently considering Gerry safer within the convention hall than outside, the friends of the Constitution acquiesced in a motion by Samuel Adams that Gerry be permitted a seat on the floor to supply information “that
had Escaped the memory of the other Gentlemen of the general Convention.” The Federalists treated Gerry so rudely, however, that he quit the floor in a huff. Without him the anti-Federalist leadership seemed to falter, though some of the country delegates performed brilliantly.
Samuel Nasson, a Maine saddler and storekeeper, rose to “beg the indulgence” of the convention while he made “a short apostrophe to liberty. O, liberty! thou greatest good! thou fairest property! With thee I wish to live, with thee I wish to die!” He shed a rhetorical tear over the perils to which liberty was exposed, first at the hands of British tyranny and now before the power of Congress. Nasson and his colleague John Taylor peppered the Federalists with more prosaic objections too: questions about the Constitution’s mechanics, attacks on its concessions to slavery, and arguments in favor of the annual election of legislators.