Some have insisted that the result of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was a document that provided the federal government with a massive amount of centralized power. This assertion maintains that the nationalists won the political debates and squabbles, creating a government framework that supplanted all pre-existing powers of the states.
Indeed, influential opponents of the Constitution, such as “Brutus,” “An Old Whig,” Luther Martin, and Patrick Henry railed against the plan. With fury and indignation, they claimed that the Constitution authorized a consolidated nation. They said it would effectively abolish all state laws and state authorities. They suggested that a powerful, European-styled king would rule as the executive. They even said the federal Constitution would abolish the state courts.
But did it?
James Madison and Edmund Randolph went to the Philadelphia Convention with the plans of the Virginia Plan, which called for the executive to be elected by a “National Legislature” much like in Virginia. They didn’t get it.
Madison and Randolph went to the Philadelphia Convention with the intentions that there would be a bicameral legislature, where both houses would be apportioned by population and the lower house would elect the upper house. Clearly, the delegates did not settle upon this plan for a legislature.
Madison and Randolph went to the Philadelphia Convention with plans drawn up which would allow for a powerful federal judiciary, with the power to rule on all cases of perceived importance. Instead, the Constitution authorized a less powerful judiciary that could only rule on certain specified cases.
Madison and Randolph went to the Philadelphia Convention with the hope that the Congress would have a veto power over state laws. They didn’t get it, and Madison complained about it in the months after the convention, describing his disdain in an October 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson.
Alexander Hamilton went to the Philadelphia Convention with a plan that called for the executive to be a monarch, for him to appoint the State Senators and Governors, and for the states to effectively be dissolved into one sovereign body. The convention scorned this model, and he did not get his wish.
John Mercer and James Wilson went to Philadelphia as friends of paper money, opposing any prohibitions against it. Instead, the Constitution prohibited the states and the federal government from emitting such currency.
Alexander Hamilton went to the Philadelphia Convention with a plan for the Senators to serve for “during good behavior or life.” The obvious product of the Constitution is that they serve six year terms.
Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and James Madison left Philadelphia contending that a bill of rights was unnecessary and superfluous. By the time of the First Congress, they retracted this position. Additionally, the Bill of Rights was written, collated, and ratified by the states. It contained various explicit restrictions against the federal government.
Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris went to the Philadelphia Convention with plans for a national bank with monopoly power over currency emissions. Their proposal was defeated.
Various other representatives of the states contended, according to Madison, for “an unlimited power over trade including exports as well as imports, and over slaves as well as other imports.” They didn’t get their wishes, either.
The aims of the nationalists largely lost out, and the extent to which the Constitution gave the federal government a huge amount of national power has been exaggerated by many historians. This development caused the most ardent nationalists to complain about the finalized result of the Constitution in the months after it was written.
Some advocates, like Madison and Hamilton, agreed that the framework was a little better than the Articles of Confederation and consequently supported ratification, but even they did view it as an optimal framework. Madison famously complained that the document was not to his liking in a letter to Thomas Jefferson shortly after the Philadelphia Convention.
While the states did not view the Constitution as a document that would siphon substantial amount of their own power, this understanding did not last long. However, it is important to note that the tendency of the federal government to violate the Constitution’s aims was due to ill-designing men in the government, not the government framework itself.
This became evident even by the George Washington administration. The Hamiltonian economic plan, which became one of the administration’s defining aspects, was not sanctioned by the Constitution. Had it been, the plan would not have been nearly as objectionable as it was. Instead, it brought about a firestorm of controversy.
In his opinion on the constitutionality of a national bank, Hamilton conceded that Constitution did not give explicit authority to create the bank. Backtracking from his words in 1788, Hamilton now insisted that the Constitution magically granted “implied powers.” Jefferson, Madison, and other prominent figures railed against the bank on the basis of its lack of constitutionality.
Under the Federalist administrations, Alexander Hamilton’s actions as Secretary of the Treasury, the Jay Treaty, and the Alien and Sedition Acts caused the rise of the first opposition party, the Jeffersonian Republicans. It also caused notable Virginians, such as William Branch Giles and John Taylor of Caroline, to discuss secession as early as the mid-1790s. These policies prompted accusations of unconstitutionality to become the rallying-cry of Jefferson’s faction, and the disputes resulted in the Federalists losing power forever as a result of the 1800 elections.
When the states ratified the Constitution in their ratification conventions, they did not give their unlimited consent to those that would go beyond its boundaries. It did not give Washington, the most popular man in the states, the ability to become a king. It did not abolish the state governments, nor consolidate them into one nation. It did not authorize Congress to legislate on every subject. It did not ensure a European monarchy.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the true way to understand the Constitution was “according to the true sense in which it was adopted by the States, that in which it was advocated by its friends, and not that which its enemies apprehended.” Jefferson’s conclusion made sense. Had the states reached scornful conclusions regarding the document, they simply would not have adopted the framework. This is the way the Constitution was always intended to be understood.
The view that the Constitution provided ultimate national power ignores these facts, and does not explain why the Federalists acts were so controversial. It discounts how the Federalists sold the document to the states, and overlooks the state ratification ordinances. If we are to believe that the Constitution empowered a national government, we have to disregard all of the Philadelphia Convention proceedings as well as the state ratification conventions.
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