Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Geroge Mason, Patrick Henry, and Nationalism contra Federalism
It seems that, under the Articles of Confederation, there were states rights, as each state was considered sovereign and independent. However, with the ratification of the new constitution, that seems to have disappeared. Historian Clarence Carson has noted that, regarding the Articles of Confederation: “This bent, or tradition can be traced to many sources. Americans were, above all, a people of the book–the written word–the Bible. There was the Puritan idea, too, of the Covenant, an agreement between man and man and between man and God…Colonists had drawn their own political agreements, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut…Once the colonies had broken away from England, the only historical allegiances that remained were to the states and localities…At any rate, there should be no doubt that the government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation was brought into being by the states.”
Some delegates saw the new Constitution as potentially tyrannical and refused to sign it. It seems that statesmen in those days had a far clearer view of things than do our present politicians, who I will not dignify by calling them statesmen.
George Mason of Virginia was unwilling to sign. The major objection was that the new document did not contain a bill of rights and there were objections in several state conventions to ratification being enacted too hastily without such being made part of the document. Patrick Henry argued, and rightfully so, in the light of history, that a specific bill of rights was essential. He observed that governments regularly and automatically assumed powers that were not prohibited to them. Can anyone in our day deny this truth? We have a Commander-in-Chief that regularly rules the country by executive fiat when he can’t get a usually-willing Congress to go along with something he has been instructed to ram through. And Congress never seems to complain. They sit back and let him do it. In our day the Executive Branch of government regularly usurps powers denied to it and the courts ignore the whole situation, giving the Executive and Legislative branches a wink and a nod as our rights are stolen. So much for checks and balances–another bill of goods we have been sold.
Added to all this was the continuing problem of differing views of the Constitution, which seems to have been a major problem back before the War of Northern Aggression.
In his book The Confederate Constitution of 1861 Marshall DeRosa noted that: “Within the context of American federalism does sovereignty reside in the people in their national or state capacities? To be more precise, does the U.S. Constitution establish an association of sovereign individuals within their respective states or a national community of sovereign individuals the states notwithstanding?” It seems that within the ‘more perfect Union” there has always been this tension. DeRosa noted that by 1861 this tension had become a major cleavage so that the Constitution “rather served as a vehicle for dissension and separation.”
DeRosa observed that: “This was most certainly the case by 1861, as Northerners insisted on a model of federalism consisting of a national community of individuals, with sovereignty being a national phenomenon–that is, nationalism–whereas Southerners adhered to a model consisting of a community of states.”
John C. Calhoun, while he was still alive, (he died in March, 1850) noticed that a transition was taking place wherein the old Federal Republic was being transformed into a consolidated democracy, which placed sovereign authority at the national level while taking power away from the states. That trend continued, with William Henry Seward claiming that the Constitution had established a national community of individuals and not a community of states. Seward was from New York.
And this thought has occurred to me–is it just possible that what Calhoun observed as a transformation was, in fact, actually there in seed form at the very beginning?
According to DeRosa, Seward claimed that: “the States are not parties to the Constitution as States; it is the Constitution of the people of the United States. But even if the States continue as States, they have surrendered their equality as States, and submitted themselves to the sway of the numerical majority…” There is no way I can agree with Seward’s blatant nationalism, but, what if that was really the intent from the beginning? What if nationalism was sold to the Southern states surreptitiously as federalism and, outside of a few men like Patrick Henry, hardly any grasped that? While that may sound far out to some, is it any further out than the idea of a group of men eagerly signing up for a “Union” they could not secede from only 13 years after they had experienced the same situation with Great Britain?
You have to wonder what would make men yoke themselves and their states again to a bondage they had only recently fought a war of independence to get away from. You have to wonder if some of these delegates had in mind something other than the freedom and liberty for both states and individuals that Patrick Henry envisioned.
An educated pastor once said to me “You have to wonder if there were some anti-Christs in that (constitutional) convention.” At the time, I did not grasp the enormity of his assertion. Now I have begun to.
He wrote the foundational words for America. If we listen, he taught us the dream that the import of America is greater, more important than any government of any United States.
He continues today as he was in his time, a pulsating presence of cogency, learning and disregard for political prominence. An unsplintered force, he is our unbreakable vision of limited government grounded in the local people. Like Taylor of Caroline and Macon of North Carolina, he was a true, tempered and tried ‘Roman’ Republican. He built for the ages. He loved for and lived between our eternities of Life and Liberty.
His “Virginia Declaration of Rights” is our touchstone expression of the essential American understanding of a people, any people and their government. He did not abbreviate our world into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. He was far more clear: “… all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”.
Again, “… all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.”
And, again, “… when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to … (the security, protection and common benefit of the people) … a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.” (Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, from Sec. 1, 2 and 3)
In 1787 he led the fight to end the Slave Trade only to have that quintessential understanding of liberty set adrift in the slave-ship harbors of New England on the demand of South Carolina’s early gift to Nationalism, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. In turn, Pinckney threw away the South’s defense against New England’s commercialism voting to allow a simple majority in the national legislature for commercial statutes. Infuriated, Mason claimed the South was there “delivered” into the hands of the Northern business interests. He recognized the igniting spark of future war.
Unlike Patrick Henry relying on the Amendment Clause to sign approval for the Constitution, or Edmund Randolph who did an about-face from Philadelphia so strange as to withhold a letter from New York during the Virginia ratification convention which, if known to the delegates, may have tipped Virginia to Mason’s side, Mason held firm and refused. In so doing he declined the shards of political compromise to retain political stature. It was then he rose to become an historical beacon of a person’s self-worth.
He understood that the threat to a person’s liberty is so great as the distance between your government and your person. Humanity’s personal liberty requires greater vigilance than its property. Principles of government that will be continuously construed to protect our liberty can only be retained when closely borne. While Wilson, Hamilton and Ellsworth plotted for a national judiciary which they knew would stitch together national power over the States, Mason agreed the courts would grow far afield from the States. He proposed that any national judiciary be limited to admiralty and maritime cases. Like Jefferson who called courts “sappers”, Mason knew no government function breathes air so distant from local people as a national-appointed judiciary.
When he passed from this world on October 7, 1792, he left a record of sterling brilliance and unparalleled character, of self-denial service to more than the people of Virginia. He is our Untarnished Founder, a man whose intellect, character and vision equaled or surpassed any in this world’s political history – for he served the world as well as his country, Virginia. He and Jefferson would say good-bye at Gunston Hall for the last time on September 30, 1792, and the Federalist Republican mantle drew closer and far heavier onto Jefferson’s shoulders.