The Genius of America

The Genius of America by Eric Lane

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Authors: Eric Lane
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so well protected the freedom of their citizens? “Is this,” Henry asked of the new Constitution, “an association of a number of independent states, each of which retains its individual sovereignty?” Clearly no, he answered. The proposed new government, Henry roared, was “most clearly a consolidated government.” To prove his point, he cited the first three words of the new Constitution’s preamble, which were, he noted, “that poor little thing—the expression, We the People, instead of the states of America.”
    â€œWe the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . .”
    To modern Americans, the phrase has lost its original radicalness. We don’t see why it inflamed Patrick Henry. But indeed the proposed new Constitution did inflame him and “a great number” of other Americans, as Madison put it. They fought to kill the Constitution and in the process spurred one of history’s greatest debates about democracy.
    That debate accomplished a great deal beyond just the ratification of the Constitution itself. Supporters mounted a defense in which they laid out a new philosophy of government. They acknowledged, ultimately, that Henry was right in his description of the new government but wrong in his criticism. This new government was more centralized and covered a far larger territory than any democracy had ever previously covered. That was true. But supporters of the Constitution were able to convince Americans that this document laid out a system that was not only possible but necessary. To assuage the fears, raised by Henry and other opponents, that this centralized government would threaten liberty, the framers also addressed what in retrospect can only be seen as their biggest mistake at Philadelphia. And in making this adjustment they offered the first tangible demonstration of the genius of the new system. It could adapt to political need. It could channel lofty dreams and base politics into one process. And out of that process, driven by the individual interests and even selfish purposes of each citizen, could emerge something larger, even better, than the sum of what went in. In this case, what emerged to ensure ratification of the Constitution was its first ten amendments, what we now call the Bill of Rights.
    T HE P EOPLE W ILL D ECIDE
    â€œYou are called upon to deliberate upon a new Constitution for the United States of America,” announced Alexander Hamilton to the people of New York and the new nation on October 27, 1787, in the first of a series of missives, known now as The Federalist Papers , that he, Madison and John Jay wrote to persuade the people to support the new Constitution. It was the people of the United States, not the state legislatures, who were to judge the value of the proposed new Constitution through “Conventions of Delegates chosen in each state by the People thereof.”
    The framers’ decision to submit the Constitution to the people was groundbreaking, “the most audacious and altogether unqualified appeal to the notion of popular sovereignty and majority rule that had ever been made, even in America.” No other nation had ever submitted its Constitution to its people. Nor had Americans submitted the Declaration of Independence or most of their state constitutions to popular vote (only Massachusetts and New Hampshire had sought popular approval). This decision for popular ratification was somewhat ironic given the framers’ skeptical view of human nature and the divisions at the convention over whether the people could be trusted to directly select the president and members of Congress.
    But, in fact, circumstance made them feel there was no real choice.
    The ratification of the Constitution is a wonderful example of the way in which the framers merged their lofty visions with pragmatic politics. That is a lesson we need to keep drawing from their experience. Good ideas

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