Making the Constitution, Part II

Enter Alexander Hamilton

By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute

9/26/00 1:15 p.m., National Review Online

Here is Part II of our series on the drafting of the Constitution (click here for Part I, Part III, Part IV, Part V), which is marked by the emergence of Alexander Hamilton at the Convention, and the increased tension between delegates who fought over the rights of small states versus large states.

June 18: Alexander Hamilton, the 32-year-old delegate from New York, arose to speak for the first time. Hamilton, an ambitious New York City lawyer who had served with distinction as an aide to General Washington, had been urging a stronger central government ever since 1780. In the unsuccessful Annapolis Convention of 1786, Hamilton had proposed that Congress call for a convention to draw up a new form of government; the present Philadelphia Convention came after Congress heeded Hamilton's advice and summoned a Convention.

Hamilton preferred a strong central government because he thought it would foster commerce. Young Hamilton stated that the British government was the best in the world, and doubted "whether anything short of it would do in America." In every community, there was a conflict between the many poor and the few rich; government should be structured so that neither group could oppress the other.

Hamilton thought the current state governments were too responsive to the popular will, and blamed them for printing inflationary paper money in order to benefit debtors.

Like the other delegates, Hamilton wanted the Senate to be a temperate body to check the hot-headed impulses of the House of Representatives. To this end, Hamilton suggested that Senators be chosen for life.

Hamilton also suggested that the president should serve for life, both to place him above the popular will, and to prevent him from needing to create emergencies (such as wars) to justify his staying in power. In 1940 and 1944, Franklin Roosevelt would be elected to unprecedented third and fourth terms; Roosevelt explained that the emergency of World War II justified him staying in office longer. The next decade, the nation amended the Constitution to prevent a president from being elected more than twice.

June 19: The delegates continued to argue about whether each state should have an equal vote in Congress, or a vote based on population. Some delegates had suggested that the problem could be side-stepped by redrawing the state boundaries, so that each state would be the same size.

James Madison replied that the scheme was impracticable. The states each had unique "manners, habits, and prejudices," which no government could change.

Alexander Martin of North Carolina analogized to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: upon declaring independence from Britain, the 13 colonies reverted to a "State of Nature." Each was independent, and sovereign, and owed no obligations to the others. They were the same as 13 separate countries, each with equal rights. North Carolina would never give up her equality, and let more populous states have more votes.

James Wilson, of heavily-populated Pennsylvania, disagreed. The Declaration of Independence had referred to "the United Colonies," which showed that they were always one nation.

There is no need to worry that the three large states (Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) would oppress the others, reassured Hamilton. Their own interests were so diverse that they could never unite in a faction.

JUNE 21:The House of Representatives should be chosen by the state legislatures, urged John Rutledge from aristocratic South Carolina, rather than be directly elected by the People. He noted that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been chosen in that manner, and doubted that the voters would have elected such "proper characters."

The subject turned to how often representatives should be elected. Roger Sherman wanted annual elections; otherwise Congressmen would remain in the capital, and "acquire the habits of the place which might differ from those of their constituents."

June 22: The Convention debated at length whether representatives ought to be paid from the national treasury, or by the states they represented. One argument against using the national treasury is that Congress would be able to set its own salary, and would then make itself rich at the public expense.

June 25: South Carolina's Pinckney rebutted the arguments of Alexander Hamilton and others who wanted to model America's government after Britain's. First of all, the concept of a "nobility" was not really so noble; the idea "arose immediately from the forests of Germany" where Anglo-Saxon barbarians had lived.

Americans were different from every other people, and could not be governed in the same way as were the Greeks, Romans, or anybody else. "A system must be suited to the habits and genius of the people it is to govern, and must grow out of them." America could not have a Senate modeled after Britain's House of Lords, which represented the nobles, since America didn't have any nobles.

Heeding Pinckney's advice, the nation would eventually adopt a Constitution particularly suited to American customs. For example, Article I mandated, "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States." Because America had been founded by those fleeing religious persecution, Article VI declared, "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

June 26: James Madison laid out the essential political philosophy of the Constitution. Power should be divided in several parts, so that "different bodies of men...might watch and check each other." Coalitions of majorities tended to oppress minorities (such as poor people demanding that the rich give up their wealth). To guard against such danger, part of the government should be "sufficiently respectable for its wisdom and virtue" to slow down or stop majority oppression. Madison stressed that the new Constitution "would decide for ever the fate of Republican government." Alexander Hamilton agreed that if Republican government failed in America, it would be "disgraced and lost to mankind for ever."

Over the next few weeks, the Convention and its hopes for a national republican government would teeter on the brink of failure, as the delegates fought angrily over the rights of small states versus large states.

Making the Constitution
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.

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