Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, by M.E. Bradford
America's Many Propositions
Mises Review 1, No. 2 (Summer 1995)
ORIGINAL INTENTIONS: ON THE MAKING AND RATIFICATION OF THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION
University of Georgia Press, 1993, xxiv + 165 pp.
By profession M. E. Bradford was a literary scholar, and Original Intentions, issued shortly after his untimely death, manifests his sure touch for the nuances of words. We can already see Mel Bradford in action by the second word of his title—not "intention" but "intentions."
By using the plural, Bradford called attention to a fundamental fact about the U.S. Constitution. Diverse persons and groups, both in the Constitutional Convention and the state ratification conventions, had various purposes in mind in their advocacy of the new charter of government. One cannot then assume that the views of any particular Framer have been enacted into law.
Bradford applies this precept to no less than James Madison, the "protagonist" of the convention (p. 1). Madison arrived at the Convention a strong centralizer; and his Virginia Plan, introduced through his follower Edmund Randolph, would have allowed the larger states to dominate a powerful national legislature. Although, through shrewd maneuvers and the favor of George Washington, Madison succeeded in having his plan placed on the convention's agenda, he soon discovered that he could not force his designs upon delegates for the most part much less centralist than he was.
Madison at first failed to grasp the extent of resistance to his centralizing designs, and the convention neared collapse. "That he [Madison] was listening to other music instead of the baleful iteration of these predictions of adjournment sine die can be demonstrated by his functional indifference to the structure of the Great Convention itself. For he failed to treat it as an assembly representing the people of the states" (p. 9). Only when Madison came to recognize that most delegates did not want the basic framework of their way of life to be tampered with could the convention proceed.
I have dealt in some detail with Bradford's initial essay as it illustrates the basic features of his historical method. Like the great historian of Rome Sir Ronald Syme, he relied heavily on collective biography. With immense labor, he investigated the lives of as many as possible of the convention's delegates. His Constitution, unlike that, say, of Harry Jaffa, was informed not only by the views of James Madison, but by those of Roger Sherman, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and William Samuel Johnson as well.
Bradford possessed a keen logical mind, and his method avoids a fallacy into which lesser writers often fall. One frequently sees arguments of this form: (1) someone (e.g., Jefferson, Madison) was the principal author of a document (e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution); (2) the person in question held views of a particular character; (3) therefore, these views can be used to specify the fundamental intent of the document.
After Bradford's work, the fallacy in this line of thought should be apparent. If a document has more than one author, or is adopted by a group, only views shared by the group can be imputed to the document. And, as Bradford went on to argue, matters are yet more complicated.
Even if one knew the views of all delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the work of interpretation has just begun. Though the Convention proposed the Constitution, it did not institute the new regime. That task belonged to the state conventions that ratified the Constitution, and thus the intentions of the delegates to those conventions must be taken as authoritative. To construct a detailed picture of all the state conventions is a Herculean task, but it was not beyond Bradford's powers. In chapters on the ratifying conventions of Massachusetts, South Carolina, and North Carolina, he presents the results of his painstaking investigations.
Like King Lear, Bradford could say, "I will teach you differences." He stresses always the influence of the local, and the effects of seemingly minor events. Had the state conventions been held in a different order, he speculates, the Constitution might well have failed of adoption.
Some generalizations can, however, be ventured. "That the powers of the new government are few and explicit is in the ratifying conventions the central theme of the Federalist defense of the United States Constitution and a primary explanation of why the sequence of ratification went as it did" (p. 41).
The dominant desire of the Framers and ratifiers of the Constitution was to maintain the settled ways of the past rather than impose some new philosophical scheme. Not for Bradford is the Straussian view that the Framers were enlightenment philosophers who wished to establish a new order based on rationalist principles. Quite the contrary, Bradford finds the British Constitution of 1688 their principal model. "For early English constitutional history is a universe of discourse, a structure of values inherent in the language of its expression that is the opposite of metaphysical speech concerning abstract moral principles and ideal regimes" (p. 33).
Elsewhere, Bradford applies his biographical method to other historical issues. In "Religion and the Framers" he argues that the current Supreme Court's understanding of the establishment clause of the First Amendment ignores the intent of the Congress that proposed it. Once again, he works by careful building up of biographical detail and attention to the particularities of debate. In "Changed Only a Little" he deploys his method to challenge the view that the Reconstruction Amendments fundamentally altered the Constitution.
Though Bradford opposed fitting history to a Procrustean bed of philosophy, he was himself a philosophical intelligence of considerable stature; and his protests against improper philosophizing have themselves a deeper end in view. Bradford feared the imposition of what, following Michael Oakeshott, he terms a teleocratic political order. This sort of regime subordinates politics to some overarching goal—such as, to take an example not at random, equality. The governing powers need observe no limits in pursuit of their end; and the result, inevitably, is despotism. Instead, Bradford directed the full force of his scholarship and personality toward the promotion of a nomocratic order—a system that operates by fixed rules of procedure, never to be set aside.
M. E. Bradford was a scholar of immense gifts, devoted to the cause of liberty. Though he was denied in life the full recognition that he deserved, he could apply to himself the words of Browning's Paracelsus: "But after, they will know me."
Cite This Article
Gordon, David. "America's Many Propositions," Review of Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, by M.E. Bradford. The Mises Review 1, No. 2 (Summer 1995).