It’s not often that we have the opportunity to review a book by a member of our Tenth Amendment Center family – Mike Maharrey’s Our Last Hope being a notable exception. But I am delighted to review a new book by TAC blogger, David Benner. The book, Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution, is a 309-page jaunt through the history of the Constitution and the American Union.
From the beginning, Benner’s narrative is unique in its scope. He opens the book with a bang as he spends the first chapter systematically dismantling the argument – created primarily by Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Story and retold countless times since – that the Constitution was adopted by a single, monolithic group of people (We the People) in order to institute a supreme, centralized power.
Instead Benner correctly asserts that “The United States government was not created by ‘one people,’ but instead by a conglomeration of several independent, sovereign states that delegated it certain, limited powers, retaining all others.”
In support of this contention, Benner raises an army of Founding Fathers from the dead and brings their words and opinions regarding the Constitution and the Union back to life. Benner writes that “Even the Federalist advocates of the Constitution did not make such claims (that the Constitution was adopted by “one people” to form a centralized government) when selling the Constitution to the states for ratification.”
As Benner observes, James Madison, a proponent of the Constitution in Virginia’s ratification convention, was challenged with this question and unequivocally denied that it was true. Madison responded, “Who are the parties to (the Constitution)? The people – but not the people as composing one great body; but people as composing thirteen sovereignties.”
Benner pays special attention to the state ratification conventions, stating that “if more emphasis was placed on the state ratifying conventions, honest scholars would conclude their studies with a much more solidified and accurate interpretation of the Constitution and how it was sold by its proponents.” In order to recapture this original, accurate interpretation, Benner offers an overview of each state’s ratification process.
What is uncovered through this investigation is the debate, in several important states, that raised and answered important questions about the nature of the Constitution – questions that today are still discussed as if the ratification debates had never occurred.
For instance, Benner uncovers a debate in North Carolina’s convention that specifically addressed the Supremacy Clause, which today’s centralizers love to cite as evidence that the Constitution created a national government with unlimited authority over the states. Our author, however, cites North Carolinian William Davie as saying that a federal law “can be supreme only in cases consistent with the powers specifically granted, and not in usurpations.”
Benner notes that this argument played out in several states, while also observing that the response by the Constitution’s salesmen was always the same. He writes,
“These Federalists constantly claimed that the apprehensions of the Constitution’s (opponents) were unsubstantiated. They did this by reiterating the fact that the government would only have the power it was ‘expressly’ delegated…As a result, (Thomas) Jefferson wrote that the Constitution should be understood ‘according to the true sense in which it was adopted by the states, that in which it was advocated by its friends…”
Due to this understanding of the Constitution, Benner writes that nullification is a natural outgrowth of this Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution – which is to say, the correct view of the original understanding of the compact of the states. Benner argues that “Today, if only the states actualized their own inherent powers…there would be no unnoticed action that would force them to ‘bow to the laws of the Union’ in response to unconstitutional laws.”
But this book is no mere exposition of the original Constitution – although that task is itself formidable and Benner tackles it with aplomb. The book is a useful resource for additional context around the constitution, as Benner introduces the reader to a wide range of constitutional and legal antecedents throughout English history, beginning with the Magna Carta and following through to the English Bill of Rights.
Along the way he touches on key historical elements in the development of English law, including the principle of British Federalism, the reign of Charles I, the English Civil Wars, the rise and fall of Oliver Cromwell and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Benner also pays attention to the generations that followed the founders, including some of the best proponents of Jeffersonianism throughout the 19th century. This list includes largely forgotten figures like John Tyler, Abel Upshur and Franklin Pierce. He also reviews the record of the anti-Jeffersonians, including Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and Hamilton’s acolytes John Marshall and Joseph Story.
None of this is a mere exercise in historical curiosity. Benner’s entire work is aimed at pointing to the solution that the Founding Generation would have had for the problems of centralized power that we face today. As Benner observes at the beginning of the book,
“Today we share the gifts of a founding generation which largely understood the nature of tyranny and oppression. The founders realized that if an unconstitutional action was taken by the government and the Constitution was violated, the document itself would not simply produce fangs to bite the offender. Simply put, they realized that the document does not enforce itself,”
A better statement of purpose for the Tenth Amendment Center could not be written. It is our goal to remind the people that they are to be the Constitution’s fangs, that they are to be vigilantly protective of their rights and the rights of their states. David Benner’s Compact of the Republic is an invaluable resource that goes a long way towards, as Thomas Jefferson would say, reawakening the slumbering spirit of 1776.