The Beginning and the Basics: A reminder of why our nation has been great

June 26, 2003

By Jonathan DuHamel

Excerpted from People for the West (Tucson) Newsletter
Volume 9, No. 7, July 2003

Information and commentary on the environment, property rights, and multiple use of federal lands.

This time of year it is well to reflect on our beginnings as a nation, and our basic principles. The following is such a reminder.

Our Constitution is the contract with America

The Revolt

Just what was it that led a group of 56 men -- among them doctors, educators, and clergy -- aged 26 to 70, to sign a treasonous document that would break the bonds between the 13 colonies and Mother England? It wasn't wealth. It wasn't fame. It wasn't glory.

On the contrary, disaster and ruin were the lot of many of the signers. Nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were jailed and brutally treated. One lost all 13 of his children; and the wives, sons and daughters of others were killed, imprisoned, harassed or deprived of all material possessions. Seventeen signers lost everything they owned, and all were hunted as traitors, with most separated from home and family. But none of the signers ever betrayed his pledged word. There were no defectors. No one changed his mind. Lives and fortunes were lost, but their sacred honor was never sacrificed.

What piece of paper could they have valued so highly that they willingly jeopardized their property, their liberty, their lives? What piece of paper could they have revered so highly that they were willing to pit a poorly equipped and badly trained militia of 10,000 men against an armada of British ships with 42,000 sailors? What piece of paper could they have esteemed so highly that they signed with trembling hand but resolute heart?

That piece of paper was The unanimous Declaration of the United States of America, which said in part:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Freedom was not free for those Colonial patriots who committed treason 227 years ago. Nor is it free today. But the further removed generations are from that two centuries old insubordination and the ensuing conflagration, the dimmer the magnitude of their dedication and sacrifice. In the comfort and security of freedom we are complacent; we take that great gift for granted. Now we find ourselves in similar bonds of slavery as those who declared independence from England two centuries ago. We find the right to life, liberty and property threatened, not by an absent king, but by an increasing almighty and ever-present government; a government that has "erected a multitude of new offices and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

In the "Seven Principles of Animalism" in George Orwell's allegorical comment on Communism, Animal Farm, those in power deliberately, letter by letter, smeared and blurred and eventually erased the seven original principles. The animals shook their heads and rubbed their eyes in astonishment and incredulity at the changes, but in the end were convinced that only one Principle had ever existed. It read, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Today we rub our eyes and shake our heads in astonishment and incredulity. . that Politicians who wanted a means of legal plunder have changed the meaning of "welfare" from "the state of faring well" to "the redistribution of wealth."

  • that Freedom of religion and speech and the press have mutated to abolition of religion, politically correct speech, and an advocacy press.

  • that "The right of the people to keep and bear Arms," has metamorphosed into a protection for criminals--who acquire their guns on the black market--while law-abiding citizens are having them stripped away.

  • that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" has been trampled by governmental agencies that trespass on private land in search of endangered species which are used to confiscate the land.

  • that State Powers have been appropriated by the Federal Government via legislation, executive order and bureaucratic regulation.

  • and that as State Powers have been usurped, so is American sovereignty threatened by the United Nations.

In the song, "God Bless the USA," Lee Greenwood says, "the flag still stands for freedom, and they can't take that away." But every new regulation takes freedoms away. Every new bureaucracy takes freedoms away. Every new government intrusion takes freedoms away. Our Americanism and our Constitution are on the endangered species list, and it's time to reclaim both.

Making the Contract with America

By 1787, just four years after the conclusion of the War for Independence, the American states and their fledgling union were in trouble. The British still menaced from their lair in Canada; Spain was encroaching on the southwest and threatened to prohibit use of the Mississippi River for trade. American states were blocked from lucrative markets in the British-controlled West Indies. Individual states set up their own tariffs and treaties. The union under the Articles of Confederation was failing because the federal government had no power to enforce its laws. But the chief problem was money. The only hard currency was foreign, and it was scarce.

Both the national government and individual states had outstanding IOUs for expenses accrued during the war. Individual states issued paper money which soon became devalued. Many people were thrown into debtors prison because they didn't have the hard currency to pay taxes and other expenses. Things came to a head when Massachusetts imposed a harsh tax to pay its debts. People were hard pressed to pay these taxes. Bands of farmers under the leadership of Daniel Shays closed courts, prohibited sheriffs from collecting taxes, and, when the Massachusetts militia came after them, attacked the arsenal at Springfield. Shays' insurgents lost that battle, but later gained much through more lawful methods. The incident, however, had a profound effect on people and the nation. As a result, the Continental Congress called for a constitutional convention to convene in Philadelphia on May 14th.

Fifty-five delegates from 12 of the 13 states met during that sultry summer of 1787. (Rhode Island refused to participate.) Most delegates were veterans of the revolution, members of state legislatures or the Continental Congress. Most were wealthy businessmen, lawyers, judges or politicians, who had considerable experience in writing laws and constitutions within their own states. Most were well educated in the classics at colleges or through self-study, but there were some scoundrels as well.

One such scoundrel was William Blount of North Carolina. He was a land speculator, political hack, and, later became the first U.S. Senator to be removed from office by impeachment. But he had an important role in a critical compromise. More on that later.

At the Convention, small states were fearful they would not have adequate representation in a new government. Large states were resentful that under the Articles of Confederation, each state had just one vote, a situation which was unfair to the population of big states. Some wanted a very strong central government; while others fought passionately for states' rights. Western interests were at odds with the eastern establishment; rural interests competed with the large population centers; and the North and South were divided over both business and slavery. Given these contrary views, it is remarkable that anything was accomplished in Philadelphia, and several times the convention almost failed. But the delegates had an overriding common concern, the absolute necessity "to form a more perfect union," and James Madison of Virginia had a plan.

Madison, who is regarded by historians as the father of our constitution, was the son of a wealthy plantation owner, a short, delicate man who didn't have to work for a living. Instead, he studied, first in his father's library and later at Princeton University where he studied philosophy, natural rights, and what made governments work and fail. He held many high pressure jobs: member of the Virginia government, congressman, secretary of state, and president. Yet, he was terrified of public speaking and often fainted from nervousness.

Madison was a "Nationalist", a supporter of a strong central government, but not as strong as one envisioned by the hot-headed Alexander Hamilton. Madison wound up mediating between Hamilton and the strong states rights position such as that held by Thomas Jefferson.

Although many of Madison's specific proposals for the new constitution were not adopted, he did provide the philosophical basis which eventually carried the convention. Madison believed that government should be instituted to protect property, property in the broad sense. He was concerned about government power. He wrote "You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." The government must be powerful enough to govern effectively, but not so powerful as to interfere with the legitimate liberties of the people. Madison envisioned a "national principle" wherein the government would act upon people directly rather than through the states. He promoted a "separation of powers" that would provide checks and balances within the government so that no one branch could, theoretically, gain too much power.

We all know how this story turns out, but how it got to the conclusion it did, is a fascinating story. We owe James Madison for this knowledge because he is the only one who kept complete notes. Throughout that long summer, the delegates debated each point, came to conclusions, revisited and revised those conclusions, made and broke alliances and deals.

One of these deals makes an interesting sidelight. The original charters of many states had their territories running all the way to the Mississippi River. Many states ceded their western territories to the national government. But of vital interest was how these lands would be carved up into new states and how these states would be admitted to the union, because new states could upset the balance of power.

As it happened, the Continental Congress was meeting in New York at the same time as the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In New York, Congress was considering the Northwest Ordinance which would determine how states carved from the Northwest Territory would be admitted to the union. In Philadelphia, delegates were debating how black slaves would be counted for the purposes of taxation of their owners, and how they would be counted for purposes of a state's representation in the new Congress. Three southern delegates, among them William Blount, disappeared from Philadelphia for several days. When they returned, it was reported that southern states agreed that new states carved out of the Northwest Territory would be admitted as "free" states. In Philadelphia, the delegates made a concession favorable to southern states on the questions mentioned.

Finally it was done. On September 17th, the delegates read through the new Constitution one last time and 40 of the 55 delegates affixed their signatures. When ratified by nine states, it would become law of the land. Now all they had to do was sell it to the states.

But they forgot a bill of rights! Most delegates thought a bill of rights was unnecessary because state constitutions contained such safeguards. But it was this one issue that almost sank the Constitution; citizens of the states considered a bill of rights of paramount importance.

To help sell the new constitution, two New York lawyers, Alexander Hamilton (who would later be killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr), and John Jay (later the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and the Virginia scholar and politician, James Madison, wrote a series of essays which became known as the Federalist Papers. These essays endeavored to justify the decision at Philadelphia and provide a primer to those who would debate ratification in the several states.

Delaware became the first state to ratify the new Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787; New Hampshire became the ninth on June 21, 1788, followed soon by New York and Virginia. North Carolina and Rhode Island refused until a bill of rights was added during the first administration of George Washington.

Our Bill of Rights was modeled after the Virginia Declaration of Rights crafted by George Mason. James Madison led the new Congress in proposing 12 amendments, ten of which became our Bill of Rights, the other two were not adopted. At last, we had a contract with America.

Just after the convention in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was asked by an observer whether we now had a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied with this warning: "We have a republic, if you can keep it." [This article is taken from parts of essays written by Sara Jo DuHamel in 1997 and by Jonathan DuHamel in 2001.] '

Also remember:

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government... Thomas Jefferson.

One of the goals of People for the West and this newsletter was well-stated by Thomas Jefferson:

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."


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