Partisans Vs. Patriots: The Constitution

One of the least attractive traits of partisan politics in declaring a monopoly on patriotism for your side. Those old enough will recall when Lee Atwater used George H.W. Bush as a hand puppet whose sole campaign against Dukakis seemed to be trips to flag factories.

Ever since the Vietnam War the bellicose wing of the Republican Party has tried to co-opt the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and the Fourth of July in an attempt to paint Democrats as peaceniks. Now the right seems to have begun trying to claim the Constitution is a document only they revere and that Democrats, particularly their Kenyan,socialist president, seek to subvert.

This is ironic in several ways. First, if the family values, religious wing of the party knew anything about the men who wrote the thing they’d disown them. The Puritans were long gone by 1787 and the private lives and beliefs of those enlightenment scholar and slaveholders were far from G-rated.

As for small government, states rights, libertarian enthusiasts, they often seem as if they would have been happier with the flawed, dysfunctional Articles of Confederation that the delegates met to revise in Philadelphia that hot summer from May 25th to Sept. 17th. The convention almost immediately decided to ignore it’s mandate to fix the rickety structure and set out to invent a whole new federal framework that would give much more power to a national government.

Arguably the most important member was James Madison. Knowing this was a chance to save a faltering union he had corresponded with Jefferson in Paris and asked for any reading suggestions. Jefferson sent several large cases of books. Bt the time the convention convened Madison may not have read the lot but did have a well-thought out plan that he cannily guided through the process, often persuading others to introduce parts of it so that it would seem less like the work of one, really smart Virginian.

He simultaneously took detailed notes of the daily debates and later admitted that trying to shepherd the convention and chronicle it at the same time nearly killed him. After his death those notes were published and are one of the great documents of American history.

Second in importance was Alexander Hamilton of New York who favored a much stronger central government than the southern planters. He saw the future of the country as sure to be dependent on enterprise, trade and capital, an understandable bias in a New Yorker even then. Hamilton’s views carried extra weight because he had been Washington’s aide de camp in the Revolution and was as deep a thinker and lucid a writer as Madison.

Thus began the fight that still endures between city and countryside, capitalist and yeoman freeholder, federal power and states rights. But Hamilton and Madison did not fight. They differed, but sought the same end — a government strong enough and flexible enough to survive and adapt in a changing, dangerous world. First the two helped achieve the compromise that produced a Constitution, then wrote 80 of 85 Federalist Papers to explain and sell the new blueprint to the nation (Hamilton 51, Madison 26, three in collaboration).

Apparently they succeeded. We are still here. The Constitution has endured Civil War, the coming of the industrial age, the nuclear age, and partisan polarization. In part, perhaps, because it is not just the oldest constitution in the world but the shortest, at a scant 4,400 words.

In them it simply describes three branches of government, prescribes how they will be staffed and assigns certain tasks to each, but it doesn’t attempt to dictate how future governments will deal with future challenges. Despite the views of the originalists who would like to freeze the document like a bug in amber, it is open-ended enough to have allowed it to adapt and survive. Only in the Bill of Rights are some actions expressly denied to government and guaranteed to the people.

I revere Madison and, especially, Hamilton, but also harbor a great affection for a far less well-known founding father — Gouverneur Morris, the scion of an immensely wealthy New York landed family. Their estate took in roughly the southern half of what is now the borough of the BRonx, including Yankee Stadium.

Morris was highly educated, multilingual, a lawyer, a wit and bon vivant, a tall handsome ladies man who lost a leg in a carriage accident, allegedly after fleeing out a window after the husband of a lady who was entertaining him came home early and gave chase. He attended the Constitutional Convention as a delegate of Pennsylvania where he had worked during the Revolution as the right-hand man of Robert Morris, no relation, who was the so-called Financier, the business genius who succeeded in raising the money to keep the beleaguered colonies afloat.

Gouverneur spoke more often than any other member of the convention expressing very strong pro-Federal and anti-slavery views. Soon after the convention he was appointed Jefferson’s successor in Paris where he witnessed the descent into the Terror, contrived to save many targets from the guillotine and managed to have an affair, peg-leg and all, with a woman who had previously been the mistress of Talleyrand.

He was also the leading member of the Committee of Style which was entrusted with the job of turning the Convention’s decisions into a finished document. He is acknowledged as the author of its ringing preamble which shows so clearly on what basis these men, from North and South, planter aristocrats, city bankers and Yankee businessmen, orthodox Episcopalian believers and heterodox dissenters, managed to agree in the end.

They were united in attempting to design a government for a potentially vast and powerful country, not just a ragtag collection of former colonies. They envisioned it being able to act in far-reaching ways. To do what? As Gouverneur Morris’s preamble put it, to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

While the Preamble does not have the force of law, it does express the spirit in which the document was drafted and the hopes, ambitions and intentions of the founders. When there is a question of whether some action is within the purview of the government, that capacious, noble, aspirational list is a good place to start.

One wishes Congress would convene each day not with a prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance but with a reading of the Preamble as a guide to follow in the day’s deliberations. All of it. They should make it their business to seek for their constituents not just liberty, but welfare, not just defense but domestic tranquility, and to always act in pursuit of a more perfect union, not a more completely divisive one. And finally, as it says over the third branch’s front door, to provide “equal justice under law.”

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