The Founders Flee to Philadelphia
In early May, 1787, George Washington, well tailored and well appointed, stepped into a fine coach, bid a farewell to his beloved Mount Vernon, and, attended by three men, headed for Philadelphia for a Convention that would change the course of American history.
We are at a moment in time where the viability of the new American nation is at risk. The War for Independence has been won, but the British are not exactly rushing to get out of town (or country). The government envisioned by the original Articles of the Confederation really doesn’t work, and the major movers in the country (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Jay, etc.) all know it. The national currency, such as there is one, is basically worthless script. There is no ability as a nation to do much of anything collectively, because each state guards its own priorities and privileges—and those priorities do not include giving up much power to a central government.
Not everyone agrees that something has to be done. It has taken many months to even get people to come to a convention—and the word “Constitutional” is so fraught for some states that it can’t really be used. But, eventually, enough of them buy into the idea that they are willing to send representatives—if for no other reason to make sure that not one iota of their authority is in any way abridged.
Washington’s trip is filled with irony from the start. The three men escorting him north are not really whole men at all, at least in the eyes of the law. All three are slaves—his personal manservant, a coachman, and a groom. One wonders what thoughts might have been going through their minds, or how they might have felt when they learned that the leading men of the country had assigned their lives a 3/5 value.
But this one moment, with Washington being helped into his coach by his liveried servants, bidding farewell to his plantation, with its more than 300 slaves, on his way to help define the way that you and I, our cities and states and national government interact with each other, tells you some absolutely critical things about the very people we ascribe mystical powers to, “The Founders.”
First, a majority of them were slaveholders. Franklin, who formed an anti-slavery society earlier in the eighteenth century, notably was not. But owning slaves was the norm, and it was not just the planter class—in no place in America were slaves barred, and the economic value of slavery extended beyond the Southern States to the great port cities of the Mid-Atlantic and North . We New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as enlightened—but it wasn’t until 1799 (after, if you are counting, both the Revolution and the Constitution) when we adopted a gradual emancipation plan—to be completely effective by 1827. And New Yorkers did reasonably well. New Hampshire and New Jersey didn’t formally outlaw it until 1865. Salary and the slave economy was pervasive. And, the very idea of equality among races (political, economic, or social) was unthinkable.
Second, they were men. Women didn’t always have full property rights, much less voting rights. At Mount Vernon itself, over half the staff were “dower-slaves” that were owned by Martha Washington’s first husband, who died without a Will. Washington freed his slaves on his death. When Martha passed, her 200 or so dower souls reverted back to the Custis Estate, to be distributed amongst his heirs. The political rights they would be arguing over had little application to women.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, they were largely aristocrats and men of wealth, and certainly men of power. Whatever our mythology about the Revolution leading to democracy and the rise of the individual as a citizen with equal rights, with marvelous pictures of great orators rising in defense of the common man, our form of government was negotiated by people who were largely deciding how to allocate power amongst themselves and their states.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because self-interest largely became a proxy for the general welfare. Even the most aristocratic among them recognized that the rights they were negotiating for themselves would also apply to a broad swathe of the citizenry—not all of it, not Africans, not women, but certainly free white men.
But, what did they really want? The best way to think about what went on in the Convention, and afterwards, is to think about our political system as roughly a capital I, with power flowing both horizontally and vertically
The vertical axis is defined by the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The top horizontal bar contains the three branches of Federal government, the Executive, the Congress and the Judiciary. The bottom bar consists of “the people” with certain enumerated rights, that have largely come to be defined by the Bill of Rights, Amendments 1-10. In those Amendments are expressed the ones we tend to revere--things like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, prohibitions against unlawful search a seizures, rights to a fair trial, gun rights.
But, at the moment the Convention began, these rights, these power, and these interlocking duties didn’t really exist in a single document, nor was there any agreement on even basic principles. Americans had a general sense of what they wanted as people, which roughly translated to what they thought were the rights of Englishmen, without the monarchy. And they had a basic idea of what they expected in government. As to lawmaking, they had a vague idea of a legislature, drawing from their own state legislatures, and from the English tradition of bicameralism, but even there, how much power each house should have, where bills should originate, what type of representation there should be, who should choose those representatives, and the ratio of representatives to states was the source of both confusion and real debate. Finally, most thought there was some need for an executive of some type, but what kind of Executive, how much power he should have (or even whether there should be a single one) was hotly debated. They had just rid themselves of a despotic King. They weren’t about to embrace another.
And yet, enough people knew there to be change. The potential for a great nation, even a new empire (bear in mind that we had barely gone as far as Ohio) was there—enormous tracts of land that gave opportunity for those without a lot, but willing to work hard. Tremendous natural resources, water, timber, furs, fish. It was all there, as was the remarkable energy and ambition of a restless population. It needed structure and infrastructure, and a government ready to deliver on it.
The time was ripe for a Constitutional Convention—enough people knew they had to move forward and take a chance. But could the representatives put aside their own ambitions, and parochial concerns?
That was the unanswered question when Washington arrived in Philadelphia on May 15, 1787, in his fine clothes, his manly bearing, his perfect manners, his slaves in tow.
He was greeted, and feted and praised and clucked over.
The bickering soon followed.
May 15, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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