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David Brian Robertson explains how the U.S. Constitution emerged from an intense battle between a bold vision for the nation's political future and the tenacious defense of its political present. Given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to alter America's destiny, James Madison laid before the Constitutional Convention a plan for a strong centralized government that could battle for America's long-term interests. But delegates from vulnerable states resisted this plan, seeking instead to maintain state control over most of American life while adding a few more specific powers to the existing government.
Politics and the Constitution
[T]here can be no doubt but that the result [of the Constitutional Convention] will in some way or other have a powerful effect on our destiny.
- James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, June 6, 1787
What problems were the U.S. Constitution's authors trying to solve? How did they imagine their Constitution would answer these problems? We know the framers intended to change America's destiny, and we know they succeeded. But how did they intend to transform the way American government uses its power and the way Americans use their government? What kinds of politics were the delegates to the Constitutional Convention trying to make - and what kinds of politics did their design make? For all that has been written about the Constitution, we do not have satisfactory answers to these questions.
Practicing politicians wrote the Constitution, and they expected politicians to use it. To understand the enduring effects of the Constitution on America's destiny, we need to know what its designers thought they were doing. We need to understand the circumstances that convinced these politicians that they could and should reconstitute the nation's government. We need to understand precisely how these circumstances shaped their strategies for building a new government. We need to reconstruct how these politicians used such strategies to design their Constitution, provision by provision. Better answers to these questions can help us better understand how Americans have used the government they have inherited.
HOW HISTORIANS AND SOCIAL SCIENTISTS HAVE APPROACHED THE CONSTITUTION
I could not find satisfactory answers to these questions in the many published studies of the Constitution. The most prominent historians of the founding era, such as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Douglass Adair, chronicle the sweeping intellectual currents of American culture in the eighteenth century. By eloquently describing evolving ideas about republicanism and liberty, these beautifully narrated and inspiring intellectual histories underscore the breadth and flow of political thought in the founding period.1 But these narratives do not aim to show how the delegates to the Constitutional Convention used these indefinite principles when they designed specific constitutional provisions, nor do they aim to explain systematically the political process of the Constitutional Convention.
Several historians give politics a much more prominent role in their narratives of the convention. Charles A. Beard memorably wrote that the Constitution was "an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake; as such it appealed directly and unerringly to identical interests in the country at large."2 Beard's bold explanation of the Constitution as the product of the delegates' material interests became a lightning rod for critics. Forrest McDonald, Robert E. Brown, and James Ferguson each discredited Beard's claim as simplistic.3 McDonald's work provides a more politically nuanced account that emphasizes the way the delegates worked out arrangements that accommodated diverse interests, ideas, and personalities.4 Jack Rakove provides exceptional insight into the politicians of the founding era and presents the best historian's account of the convention's politics.5 Rakove views the convention as both an intellectual and a political process in which the delegates, representing diverse constituencies, balanced differences of ideas and interests as they hammered out constitutional compromises on specific provisions. McDonald, Rakove, Clinton Rossiter, and Lance Banning provide superb, indispensable historical narratives that weave the influence of politics into the story of constitutional design.6 These historians provide a necessary starting point for the systematic political analysis of the Constitutional Convention.
These vivid histories could not decisively answer my questions about the Constitution, however. By privileging ideas, historians undervalue the role of politics.7 Historians have produced no careful and systematic analysis of delegates' political interests to match the rich literature on republican ideas, even though historians such as Allan Nevins, Jackson Turner Main, and Peter Onuf provide excellent analyses of the political landscape of the states that the delegates represented.8 Principle usually speaks for itself in a way political interest seldom does - that is, politicians are more likely to frame issues in terms of principle than in terms of interest because principles legitimate and broaden support for their interests. Even Jack Rakove, who is unusually sensitive to the play of politics, considers the convention's conflict over representation chiefly as a philosophical conflict, distinct and separate from the interest-driven bargaining over the authority of the reconstituted government.9 Historians occasionally cite specific social-science studies of the convention, but their narratives do not employ insights about political processes such as state building, policy making, political realignment, or legislative behavior.10 A more systematic exploration of political interests, alignments, and processes reveals that political maneuvering permeated all of the convention's decisions.
Political scientists have not augmented historians' work with a thorough political analysis of the Constitution's design. Although many political scientists have claimed that the Constitution contributed to enduring political features of American government, they usually choose - more or less arbitrarily - certain "important" features of the Constitution to support a more general point about American politics.11 Not surprisingly, political scientists have widely different views about the design of the Constitution. For William Riker, the Constitution represented a strategic victory for nationalists; for John P. Roche, the success of pragmatic political reformers; for Vincent Ostrom, a shrewdly crafted " compound republic" that promotes public control and economic efficiency; for Barry Weingast, "market-preserving federalism." Others characterize the founding in different but no less general terms - for example, as a triumph for protocorporate elites or policy conservatism.12 Political scientists most frequently have characterized the Constitution as a triumph for interest-group pluralism, using quotations from Federalist 10 and 51 to prove the point.13
A few social scientists have attempted to study voting behavior at the Constitutional Convention systematically.14 Calvin Jillson's work, based on an especially perceptive and systematic analysis of each vote at the convention, dovetails with Rakove's conclusions. Jillson showed that coalitions of states shifted as the convention dealt with different issues and argues that philosophical issues divided the delegates in debating "the general institutional structure for the new national government," whereas differences in narrow material interests divided them "when they voted on specific mechanisms for implementing various aspects of the constitutional design."15
Surprisingly, Jillson is the only political scientist identified with the field of American political development who has tried to analyze the politics of the Constitutional Convention so thoroughly. This is surprising because, according to two of the field's leaders, Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, "political development" refers to "a durable shift in governing authority." The Constitution was the most significant and durable shift in governing authority in American history.16 But until recently, American political development scholars have rarely addressed the early American republic at all.17 Rather, they draw on perfunctory descriptions of the Constitution to analyze later eras in American political history. Stephen Skowronek in Building a New American State and Theda Skocpol in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers both begin their landmark books with brief sketches of the Constitution's complexity.18 Skowronek's and Skocpol's sketches of the Constitution, in turn, depend almost exclusively on Samuel Huntington's argument that the Constitution implemented English political values of the seventeenth-century. Huntington held that Americans brought Tudor-era political principles to their colonies and, unlike the British, never transcended these ideas. Americans drew up their revolutionary state constitutions on these seventeenth-century precepts. The U.S. Constitution merely implemented the same constitutional notions on a national scale, creating a "Tudor polity." Huntington concluded that "American political institutions are unique, if only because they are so antique."19
But Huntington's glib portrayal of the Constitution is far too shallow to help us understand its design. From the very beginning, colonists had to adapt their mores and their governments to a situation profoundly different from that in Britain. American land was plentiful and labor was scarce, whereas in Britain land was scarce and labor plentiful. Acute labor shortages undermined the feudal aspirations of early landholders in the Carolinas, the Hudson Valley, and elsewhere. For example, European status distinctions broke down under the pressure of American land and mobility. Americans gradually came to use prestigious titles such as "mister," "honorable," and "esquire" to express the status of those holding offices, instead of some natural status of the individuals themselves.20 The presence of Native Americans forced settler communities to develop diplomatic skills and military capacity uncommon in England. The two most decisive factors in shaping American political development - extracting public revenues and mounting military operations - already distinguished the American colonies from Europe even before the American Revolution.21
Long before 1787, American politics was diverging steadily from British politics. Male freeholders were having an immediate, powerful impact on state policy that had no precedent in Tudor England; although there were severe restrictions on voting in the colonies, the lower houses of the colonial assemblies better represented public opinion than did the British Parliament. Blessed by abundant land and cursed by incessant conflict over its ownership, Americans constantly engaged in legal disputes. Courts strengthened; litigiousness blossomed in the American character. Judges turned away from British law when it did not suit the colonies' needs. American lawyers became singularly important quasi-public officials who mediated between private parties and the state.22 As James Morone points out, religion uniquely framed Americans' approach to all these problems and all their solutions.23 Presbyterians contested Quakers for political control in Pennsylvania, for example. "New Lights" challenged "Old Lights" for political control in Connecticut, while "up country" Presbyterians contested coastal Anglicans in South Carolina. The defense of religious liberty became a defining issue for such young politicians as James Madison.
Many delegates brought the most modern ideas about economic policy and republicanism to Philadelphia.24 James Wilson professed admiration for the theory of British government but reminded fellow delegates that "we can't adopt it - we have no laws in favor of primogeniture - no distinction of families - the partition of Estates destroys the influence of the Few -."25 George Mason, perhaps the delegate more inclined to Tudor ideas than any other, was defeated frequently, refused to sign the final product, and opposed its ratification in Virginia.26 Like modern politicians who evoke revered, time-tested principles to legitimize actions that shatter the existing political order, the framers used widely accepted political axioms (including century-old arguments used against the British court) to justify the fundamental changes they were proposing. Immediate political exigencies, calculations, and compromises explain the Constitution much more fully than these seventeenth-century ideas. The hard lessons of Confederation experience, not a sentimental attachment to a distant English tradition, caused the delegates to consider national reconstitution a necessity.
I failed to find a comprehensive political narrative of the Constitution's design in any of these accounts. There exists no thorough political analysis of all the Constitution's provisions, centered on the delegates as politicians at work, moving through a sequence of contingent decisions toward a final product no one imagined in advance. The best historical and political science studies of the convention, by Rakove and Jillson, conclude that the delegates simply veered from material interests to philosophical principles as they voted on individual provisions, and the interests that mattered were unique to each specific choice the delegates made. But anyone familiar with the politics of large, complicated policy decisions will recognize that politicians in these situations tether their individual decisions to deeply held political objectives and strategies. These strategies are flexible and hard to uncover in isolation, but they become more evident in close scrutiny of the pattern of choices that make up a complex political product like a constitution.
Existing studies arbitrarily select some "important" convention choices to analyze and ignore others. They downplay issues that may have mattered intensely to the delegates and shaped the outcome but that seem unimportant now because they were left out of the final Constitution. James Madison sought a national government power to veto state laws when he arrived at the convention, fought for it repeatedly during the meeting, and expressed deep regret about its failure afterward. Why? What does this tell us about Madison's political objectives and strategy, his intentions for national authority, national policy making, and the nation's political future? What does it tell us about the delegates who opposed his agenda? It is not sufficient to lay this glaring fact aside, concluding that Madison somehow did not really mean it. In convention narratives, the debate over the presidency fits oddly into the story, as if the delegates discussed the office in isolation from the compromise on representation and the constraints on national power. The story of the Constitutional Convention needs to be retold from a political point of view.
A POLITICAL APPROACH TO UNDERSTANDING THE CONSTITUTION'S DESIGN
The delegates who made the Constitution were first and foremost politicians, not philosophers, political scientists, or plundering speculators.27 These politicians had helped nurture a dozen infant state republics through a devastating war and the turbulence of economic depression. Circumstances forced them to learn the art of sustaining political support while conducting any government's most unpopular activities, such as collecting taxes. These republican politicians had mastered the skills of using policy to balance conflicting demands placed on government. A given set of economic policies could accommodate voters, pacify them, divide them, and selectively mobilize them. At the same time, economic policies could stabilize and grow state economies and secure the support of economic elites. These politicians fully understood that public policy makes politics, and the two are inseparable.28 Those who seek public office must promise to use government in some beneficial way and deliver on these promises, while those who seek public policy depend on those who win and hold government office.
1. Politics and the constitution; 2. The policy crisis of the 1780s; 3. James Madison's strategy for the constitutional convention; 4. The political landscape of the constitutional convention; 5. Who governs? Constituting policy agency; 6. What can be governed? Constituting policy authority; 7. How is the nation governed? Constituting the policy process; 8. Our inheritance: the constitution and American politics.