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America’s "Great Men" and the Constitutional Convention

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[Chapter 13 of Rothbard's newly edited and released Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.]

From the very beginning of the great emerging struggle over the Constitution the Antifederalist forces suffered from a grave and debilitating problem of leadership. The problem was that the liberal leadership was so conservatized that most of them agreed that centralizing revisions of the Articles were necessary—as can be seen from the impost and congressional regulation of commerce debates during the 1780s. By agreeing in principle with the nationalists’ call for central power, but only opposing the change going too far, the Antifederalist leadership threw away its main weapon and found itself ready to be antagonized by the forces of the counterrevolution. The nationalist leaders, in contrast to their wavering opponents, knew exactly what it wanted and strove to obtain the most possible. The initiative was always in the hands of the Federalist Right, while the Antifederalist Left, weakened in principle, could only offer a series of defensive protests to the reactionary drive. The battles were consequently fought on the terms set by the aggressive nationalist forces. Thus, such distinguished liberal leaders as Timothy Bloodworth of North Carolina; James Warren and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts; George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia; George Bryan of Pennsylvania; and Governor George Clinton of New York; had all at one time or another conceded the necessity of strengthening the central power, particularly in imposts and regulation of commerce. A real libertarian Left existed only in such thoroughly disaffected areas as Shaysite western Massachusetts, western Rhode Island, and inland areas of upstate New York. As a result of his ambivalence, Governor Clinton had allowed Hamilton his head in selecting delegates for the Annapolis Convention. And the most that the liberals did was, like Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, to live aloof and refuse to attend the Constitutional Convention. Only a few writers and pamphleteers, largely in New England, raised the torch of all-out opposition from the very beginning.1

In October 1786 Virginia was the first state legislature that approved the call for a convention for constitutional revision, and it did so overwhelmingly. In a tactical masterstroke James Madison and Alexander Hamilton persuaded the enormously prestigious George Washington to agree to place himself at the head of Virginia’s delegation, and he later became presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention. As the front man, he put his unquestioned reputation at the service of the nationalist designs. No more apt evaluation of Washington’s character and role at the convention has been written than this delightfully caustic appraisal:

Washington, at fifty-four (or at any other age), could have added little to the intellectual average of any convention, and his knowledge of what to do in one barely extended beyond rules of order. But that was all he needed to know, for any assembly he attended was likely to elect him presiding officer. He had two attributes that, even without his unparalleled prestige, prompted men to choose him The Leader; and it mattered not that one of the attributes was trivial and the other he carried to the point of triviality, nor did it matter that for the last third of his life he was largely (and self-consciously) playing a role. The first attribute was that he looked like a leader. In an age in which most Americans stood about five feet five and measured nearly three-fourths that around the waist, Washington stood six feet and had broad, powerful shoulders and slim hips; and he had learned the trick, when men said something beyond his ken, of looking at them in a way that made them feel irreverent or even stupid. The other attribute was personal integrity. At times, Washington’s integrity was bewildering, for his artlessness and his susceptibility to flattery led him to endorse actions that less scrupulous but more cagey men might shun; and at times it could be overbearing, stifling. But it was unimpeachable, and everyone knew it, and that, above all, made Washington useful. Others would do the brain work and the dirty work; Washington needed only to be there, but if there was to be a national government he absolutely had to be there, to lend his name to the doings.2

Polar opposite to Washington in characteristics stood the theoretician James Madison, who was equally important to the nationalist cause. In McDonald’s words:

Madison, at thirty-seven (or at any other age), was Washington’s opposite. Few men looked less like a leader: scrawny and pale, a bookworm and a hypochondriac, he owned a physical presence as uncommanding as one was likely to meet. But his knowledge of what to do in a convention was vast, and his talents for doing it matched his knowledge. … at base he was a brittle, doctrinaire theorist. But these very attributes were useful (practical, freewheeling politicians can always use a good theoretician, much as practical, freewheeling businessmen can use a good lawyer); and together with persistence, shrewdness, and devotion to the nation, they made him a priceless member of the nationalist group in the convention.3

Out of its seven-man delegation, other prominent Virginia notables included conservative Governor Edmund Randolph, who later moderated at the end of the convention, and the liberal-moderate George Mason.

It was, of course, critical for right-wing design that Alexander Hamilton be selected as a delegate to the convention for New York. But, with Governor Clinton largely in conflict with the New York legislature, the going would not be easy. The liberal-oriented Clinton was greatly disturbed at the odd turn that the Annapolis Convention had taken and now strongly affirmed that no such major centralizing revision of the Confederation was necessary. In fact, the Assembly, which again turned down the congressional impost plan in its 1786 session, waited until early 1787 to report disapproval of the proceedings at Annapolis. But coincidentally, a change of events proved that luck was with the nationalists: news came of Shays’ Rebellion striking upstate New York, of the British maintaining their prohibition on American trade with the British West Indies, and of new depredations of Barbary pirates. Under the pressure of their circumstances the Clintonians reluctantly joined the nationalists in mid-February and agreed to send delegates to Philadelphia and recommend the act to Congress. However, doughty old Abraham Yates, lawyer, pamphleteer, and former shoemaker from Albany and Clinton’s man in the state Senate, now led the last-ditch radical effort to New York’s participation. Yates warned of the dangers of an “aristocracy, king, despot, unlimited power, sword and purse,” but the moderate-right coalition managed to override his opposing resolution to block any changes to the Articles which weakened the New York Constitution. Yates’ resolution was defeated in the Senate by the thinnest of margins: one tie-breaking vote made by its president, Pierre Van Cortlandt. Therefore, on February 20, New York instructed its delegates in Congress to recommend participating in the Philadelphia Convention.

The struggle over naming the delegates occurred in early March. The Antifederalists preferred to elect by joint ballot of both houses of the legislature because this would have insured an all-liberal delegation dominated by the more moderate Clinton-controlled Assembly. But the more conservative Senate, led by the oligarch Peter Schuyler, insisted on separate voting. The result was a deal by which, for its three delegates, New York chose the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and two staunch Antifederalists from Albany: Robert Yates, a distinguished justice on the New York Supreme Court, and John Lansing, a wealthy lawyer appointed mayor of Albany. Since Yates and Lansing were Clintonian officeholders and had voted against the congressional impost, an Antifederalist majority of the delegation was assured. While Yates and Hamilton were chosen virtually unanimously, the Senate hotly argued to accept the result of a deal between Lansing for the liberals and James Duane of the conservative New York City oligarchy. Characteristic of the sectional splits in New York, Lansing won in the Assembly by 26-23, Lansing carrying the will of the upstate counties (except for Albany) and the swing Long Island counties, while Duane carried accordingly the city vote: New York City and Albany, as well as Richmond County. Hamilton, furthermore, was repeatedly defeated in attempts to add Chancellor Livingston, Egbert Benson, Duane, and especially John Jay, to the New York delegation in order to increase the Federalist voice.

Pennsylvania hastened to send delegates to the convention with more dispatch than New York. Most fortunately for the nationalists, the conservatives had won a significant victory in the fall elections of 1786 that weakened the radical majority in the legislature. The election, furthermore, truly revealed a sharp sectional divide within Pennsylvania, with the conservatives in control of the southeast around Philadelphia and the radicals generally dominant elsewhere. The conservatives moved swiftly and ruthlessly to impose their program. Thus, in March 1787 the legislature voted to re-charter the Bank of North America, though its charter was limited to fourteen years, its capital reduced to two million, and its loans in goods and real estate restricted. The conservatives also moved quickly to choose conservative delegates to Congress. For its eight delegates, Pennsylvania ruthlessly chose an all-nationalist delegation with the single exception of the aging opportunist Benjamin Franklin. Apart from Franklin, the oligarchy, headed by Robert Morris, scintillated in Pennsylvania’s delegation: Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris (now residing in Philadelphia), James Wilson, Thomas Fitzsimons, George Clymer, and Thomas Mifflin. Only Jared Ingersoll was a member of the radical Pennsylvania Constitutionalist Party and was the son-in-law of the wealthy Philadelphia speculator and financier, the moderate Constitutionalist Charles Pettit. Unsurprisingly, every single one of the Pennsylvanian delegates came from Philadelphia.

While the states began to send delegates to the forthcoming convention, it was by no means certain that the Congress would put its imprimatur on the meeting. Rufus King, a young congressman from Massachusetts, expressed an intelligent puzzlement: if the convention is to stay within the framework of legality and Congress is to ratify the result, then what is the point of not having Congress itself do the revising? King and his colleague Nathan Dane advised Massachusetts not to send men to the convention, and Massachusetts was strongly opposed to agreement. In mid-October of 1786, Congress referred the proposal to a grand committee that showed no sign of doing anything about it. But Shays’ Rebellion was now frightening respectable Massachusetts opinion into a far more nationalist mood, and Rufus King, reflecting this change, began a steady shift into the nationalist camp. As a result, on February 20, 1787, the grand committee ratified approval of the new convention by a mere majority of one vote. King and Dane, however, insisted that the convention be expressly and unambiguously limited to legal review of the Articles. The Congress, therefore, adopted on February 21, over the opposition by the rest of New England, the Massachusetts Resolution endorsing the convention, but only “for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation … and reporting to the United States in Congress assembled and to the States respectively such alterations and amendments.” No contract could be more explicit. Massachusetts’ approval followed the next day, and thus by the opening of the Constitutional Convention.

By May 14, the opening date for the convention, all but two states had chosen delegates. One, New Hampshire, finally chose a delegation in June, which arrived in Philadelphia at the end of July, after the important part of the convention had been concluded. Rhode Island, however, a state that had learned its radicalism the hard way for stopping taxes and public debts, stood steadfast as the lone holdout, refusing to have anything to do with the convention. However, General James Varnum, the Rhode Island nationalist, went to Philadelphia as a lobbyist and unofficial representative of the Rhode Island conservatives. Even with twelve states’ support, only Virginia’s and Pennsylvania’s eager delegates had made the trek to Philadelphia by the official opening date of May 14. It was only on May 25 that a quorum of seven states had appeared, and the Philadelphia Convention was finally ready to begin.4

The gathering at Philadelphia was a distinguished one as each state tended to select its leaders for this clearly important event: this in itself lent a strong conservative bias to the proceedings, for the distinguished men were generally wealthy and educated. In the case of the delegates, almost all were merchants, large landowners, or lawyers tied in with these interests, and many were relatively young men. Apart from such specific common aims as the coerced payment of the public debt and the opening of foreign ports to American commerce, such men were the power elite of their states, and a power elite naturally wants to expand its power and, therefore, its scope to a broad national scale. The “Great Man” is likely to be a man where his fortune or power has been aided, in one way or another, by the State; and, on the other side of the coin, he is an influential man who stands in a likely path to reach out and use the levers of State power for his own advantage. Hence, ceteris paribus, the more distinguished any given gathering, the more statist and reactionary it will likely be. The classic injunction of Lord Acton applies to the history of the Constitution:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. … Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.5

Furthermore, while it was true that nationalism was newly dominant among the urban artisans, it was also true that the proportion of nationalists was greater among the rich and the eminent than among the poor and the nameless, so that again any distinguished gathering of the two was bound to be united on behalf of the conservative cause.

It must be noted that among this gathering of America’s Great Men there were conspicuous absences. These were men who were more often than not deeply skeptical or at least ambivalent about the prospects of a convention. Two of the most distinguished, John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, were away as ambassadors to England and France, respectively. Ultra-nationalist John Jay of New York was deliberately not chosen by the largely Antifederalist legislature. Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia, on the other hand, were chosen as delegates but declined to attend—undoubtedly from deep suspicion; the doughty Patrick Henry declared that he “smelt a rat.” Henry Laurens, eminent merchant and planter of South Carolina, was too sick to attend. Thomas Paine of Pennsylvania was out of politics in Europe trying to raise financing for a bridge project he had organized. Sam Adams, too, was highly skeptical and was influential in getting the Massachusetts Resolution to restrict the scope of the convention and remain with the Confederation. Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts did not have himself selected as a delegate, probably for similar reasons. The old Adams-Lee Left, in short, was marked and almost forgotten by its absences—not only for the convention, but as a cohesive force in American political life as well. Maryland’s top oligarchs, such as Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, also held aloof, and that state sent its second-rank leadership to the convention. And in North Carolina, Willie Jones, the wealthy planter who led the liberal wing of the state, was chosen as a delegate but declined to attend, for Jones would have had to serve with the entire leadership of the highly conservative oligarchical nationalist men of the state led by William Blount.6

Overall, seventy-four delegates from twelve states were selected by state legislatures for the Philadelphia Convention, of which nineteen refused, for one or another reason, to attend. Only a handful of attending delegates could be considered leading liberals, all of whom were moderates like George Mason of Virginia or Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who were sympathetic to the convention as a device for strengthening the Articles. It was only as the true dimensions of the nationalist design began to unfold that these moderates started to grow wary and eventually go into opposition. Nationalist strength tended to come not only from the wealthy and eminent per se, but also from the urban commercial interests, merchants, and artisans, the majority of commercial farmers, and leading urban-exporters. In short, nationalist strength came from men who supported centralizing tariffs and navigation laws, raising the value of their public securities, and an aggressive foreign policy, all at the expense of the taxpaying inland farmer.7 And surprisingly, in seven of the twelve states, no representation whatever at the convention was allowed to the inland farmers, which was a clear and enormous weighting of the convention in favor of the nationalist forces. Typical was Massachusetts; of the four delegates who attended, three were from the commercial seaboard, and one was a conservative follower of Theodore Sedgwick from the commercial Connecticut valley town of Northampton. None of the numerous small inland towns were represented, to say nothing of the Shaysites from the West. The two New Hampshire delegates came from the main commercial seaboard town of Portsmouth and Exeter—again no representation from the oft-disgruntled northwestern interior. None of the three Connecticut delegates represented the inland subsistence farmer of the North, and all came from commercial towns east of the Connecticut Valley. In Pennsylvania, as we have seen, the situation was particularly blatant as every one of the eight delegates were from Philadelphia (seven from the city proper, and one from the surrounding countryside).

In the South, representation was similarly weighted in favor of men of the most conservative means, the large-planter dominated coastal plains. In South Carolina, the four delegates were all large lowland planters residing in Charlestown—not one representative of the small-farm backcountry. The five North Carolina delegates all came from the commercial large-planter dominated northeastern section of the state. In Virginia’s complex politico-economic geography, there were seven or eight major sections, of which two, the lower river valleys and especially the old feudal North Neck oligarchy of the Potomac, were the conservative, large-planter ones. Of the seven-man Virginia delegation, two men came from the North Neck and four from the lower river valleys; only James Madison, from Orange County, did not fit this picture, and he came from an area not too far from the upper Rappahannock.8

What of the other five states? Democratic Georgia, it is true, sent two delegates from the East and two from the West, but as will be seen below, it was overwhelmingly Federalist at this picture. For its part, Maryland was always accessible to the sea and was ultimately all eastern planter-run Tidewater. Delaware distributed its five delegates between New Castle County and the two southern agricultural counties, but the whole of the small state was largely a tributary of Philadelphia and the Delaware River, and consequently Delaware, too, was overwhelmingly nationalist. New Jersey had no east-west division in the commercial agricultural as did most of the other states. Instead, it had two areas, one (East Jersey) awarded to New York City, the other (West Jersey) awarded to Philadelphia, both nationalist cities. It is no surprise then that the state was overwhelmingly nationalist throughout the 1780s. Only in New York, therefore, was there a sectional-political struggle in which the interior was firmly represented and, therefore, the Antifederalists predominated (and even here the Antifederalists came from the commercial Hudson Valley town of Albany).

[The numbering of the footnotes in this article differs from that in the original book. Please consult the book for all notes.]

  • 1. Jackson Turner Main,The Antifederalists, pp. 113–16.
  • 2. McDonald, E Pluribus Unum, pp. 262–63.
  • 3. Ibid., pp. 263–64.
  • 4. [Editor’s footnote] E. Wilder Spaulding, New York in the Critical Period, 1783–1789 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), pp. 184–88; Brunhouse, The Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, pp. 191–202; Burnett, The Continental Congress, pp. 669–79; McDonald, E Pluribus Unum, pp. 259–70; Forrest McDonald, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 21–25.
  • 5. Lord Acton to Mandall Creighton, April 5, 1887, in J.E.E. Dalberg-Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power (Boston: Beacon Press, 1948), p. 364.
  • 6. As we have seen, Blount and much of his clique were leading speculators in western lands. They were also, seemingly paradoxically, at the same time nationalist and intriguing with Spain for secession of the West from the Union. The paradox is resolved in the fact that either a strong national government in control of and pushing the interests of the western lands, or a Spanish secession, would greatly raise the value of the western lands. On Blount and his group, see Main, The Antifederalists, pp. 33–38, and Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution. [Editor’s remarks] McDonald, E Pluribus Unum, p. 60; McDonald, We the People, pp. 30–34.
  • 7. It certainly seems reasonable to suppose that the public creditors, especially the federal creditors, favored a strong central government to assume and fund their debt as they had been at the end of the Revolutionary War. While this is certainly true, the famous controversy over the Charles Beard Thesis of public creditors providing the big impetus for nationalism at the Constitutional Convention is weakened when one notes that (a) many of the leading Antifederalists held large amounts of public securities; (b) as Professor Dorfman has pointed out, some securities were being held to short-sell, and therefore the holders assumed their prices would decline. But the crucial consideration is that Beard and his followers have had to rely solely on security ownership data for the year 1790. Buying securities after the Constitution was submitted in 1787 or later ratified was only good sense, and therefore holdings in 1790 say nothing about the utterly different situation in 1787, the relevant time for influencing the creation of the Constitution. Ferguson, The Power of the Purse, pp. 337–41; Joseph Dorfman, “Review of Ferguson, The Power of the Purse,” The William and Mary Quarterly (April 1961): 275–77.
  • 8. Jackson Turner Main, “Sectional Politics in Virginia, 1781–1787,” The William and Mary Quarterly (January 1955): 96–112, and Main, The Antifederalists, pp. 28–33. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., 114–18; McDonald, We the People, pp. 21–37.

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.

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