Why the Constitution Failed
by Revilo P. Oliver
IT IS A truism that we are mortal and that the ineluctable necessity of death is inherent in the biotic structure of our being: nascentes morimur. But oddly, perhaps, we Aryans also have an instinctive longing for a changeless eternity: Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit. And since reason forbids us to hope for personal survival, we want our works to endure when we are no more, and to be, if not eternal, at least diuternal.
We cannot without sorrow reconcile ourselves to a universe which, by its very structure, forbids permanence. Nations that are not degenerate intend to endure to the last syllable of recorded time. But that they cannot do. Herodotus wondered at the mysterious fate that ordains that states and empires, like men, are born, flourish, and die. Our history is a long succession of nations that rose, waxed mighty, declined, and fell, as did the greatest of them, the Roman Empire. Other races have fared no better. Egypt left her pyramids as her memorial, and here and there throughout the oecumene shattered stones remain where once there were great cities and, for a time, the pride of empire.
Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
And almost every year archaeologists open the graves of dead civilizations and exhume the pathetic remains of forgotten nations that once thought themselves deathless.
We cannot, however, acquiesce in passive fatalism, and our historians necessarily strive to ascertain the cause of each nation’s decline and fall, hoping to learn from the past the secret of national mortality. For the great mutations of history the causes are always multiple. In his almost comprehensive survey, Why Rome Fell (New York, 1927), Edward Lucas White lists twenty principal causes, including, of course, the spiritual pestilence called Christianity.
We have not yet joined the past. Our race is sick, perhaps mortally, but, proverbially, so long as there is life, there is hope.(1) Prudent men ascertain the causes of their malady and the errors in their own conduct that brought it upon them, for they hope thus to discover a means of regaining health or, at least, obtaining knowledge that will preserve their progeny from their mistakes.
To the last moment of his breath,
On hope the wretch relies,
And e’en the pang preceding death
Bids expectation rise.
We ponder the failure of the American Constitution to avert the decline and fall of the American Republic, which it was designed to establish and preserve. The document must have borne within itself the seed of its own dissolution, and, as historians, we must identify what political forces the authors of the document overlooked or did not foresee. Furthermore, we who have survived the ruin of the successor state established in 1865, still hope, perhaps desperately, to recover the land that once was ours, and, on the chance that we may do so, it behooves us to understand the errors of our forefathers so that we will not doom ourselves to repeating them.
The Constitution was a compromise. If one reads the discussions of the committee that framed it, we learn that some of the gentlemen foresaw the cardinal flaw that, as we can see with retrospective wisdom, eventually destroyed the Republic. (2)
Gouverneur Morris (of Pennsylvania) proposed that the Constitution restrict the franchise to freeholders, that is to say, to persons who owned land as an estate in fee. He was most warmly supported by the Chairman, John Dickinson (of Delaware), who stated that he “considered them [freeholders] as the best guardians of liberty; and the restriction of the right [of franchise] to them as a necessary defence against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle with which our Country, like all others, will in time abound.”
It is likely that a majority of the Committee agreed with him ‘in principle.’ James Madison (of Virginia) understood that the restriction of suffrage was fundamental, and that “the freeholders of the Country would be the safest depositories of Republican liberty. In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of, property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands; or what is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side.”
John Mercer (of Maryland) saw the fatal defect of a large electorate: “The people cannot know and judge of the characters of Candidates. The worst possible choice will be made.” He even foresaw that there might arise “in the towns” such pernicious things as political parties that would choose a candidate in their own interest and procure his election by concocting propaganda to make him popular with the ignorant populace.
The prudence of true statesmen was defeated. There was some talk about sailors and others who had fought bravely in the Revolutionary War, and some of the delegates thought the several states would insist on retaining their right to determine who should vote, but the real opposition, naturally, came from New England.
No one in the Convention, needless to say, was such a fool that he thought of letting an entire populace vote on matters of national interest, and all, I am sure, assumed that the limitation of the franchise to the owners of property was so obviously a part of political prudence that it would never be abandoned. The various states, however, differed in defining ‘property.’ Some limited the franchise to freeholders, but others required a certain amount of taxable property or even property of any kind. The mercantile and financial class, largely centered in New England, naturally insisted that money in the bank was as good as, and no doubt much better than, real estate as a test of a man’s stake in the state. And it was commerce and speculation that put lots of money in the bank. But even they perceived the necessity of maintaining the limitations on the franchise.
Since the right to vote was a privilege that few enjoyed and which therefore bestowed distinction on those who did, we are justified in assuming that in the first Congressional elections almost every holder of the franchise voted. They amounted to less than 4%, and possibly only 3%, of the civilized population of the country.(3)
Although all members of the Convention were probably agreed in principle, with minor variations (Franklin, for example, seems to have thought that the franchise should be extended without qualification to men who had served honorably in the Revolutionary War), the conflict between suffrage determined by landed property and suffrage determined by fluid capital obtained from commercial and financial enterprise appeared irreconcilable. Consequently, the limitation of the franchise to freeholders was not incorporated in the Constitution of the Republic it might have saved.
What if the prudence of Morris, Dickinson, and others had prevailed? One can, of course, speculate endlessly about what history would have been, had a given event not occurred.
I think it likely that if the saving limitation had been incorporated in the Constitution, the proposed federation would not have been ratified by the New England states. As it was, they accepted it only reluctantly and as a stop-gap to give them time to impose their will on the rest of the country.
One can, of course, argue the question and perhaps soon lose himself in analysing the declared and unexpressed purposes of, for example, the members of the Essex Junto, but I think it probable that the states that almost seceded from the Federal Union at the time of the Hartford Convention (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont)(4) would have rejected the Constitution and formed a federation of their own. They would probably have taken Maine with them, and might (or might not) have prevailed on New York and Pennsylvania to join them. Thus there would have been three Anglo-Saxon nations: Canada, New England, and the United States. The last would have been dominated by the culture and traditions of the landed gentry of the South.
The aversion from the principles of the Constitution in the prosperous parts of New England sprang from two forces that were then, as usual, complementary: greed and godliness. The Puritans of New England, it must be remembered, were the Puritans of the Commonwealth they established by revolution in England, where their power was based on commerce and industry, on London and other cities that concentrated mercantile wealth and the rabble that served it. They were too pious and avaricious to want freedom for anyone but themselves, and they abhorred the superior culture of a landed aristocracy, believing that proper social superiority could be measured in ledgers.(5)
The Puritans’ conception of what they wanted the newly formed Union to become is most clearly shown by a memorial they addressed to President John Adams (I have italicized the most revealing phrases):
We,… citizens of Boston, in the State of Massachusetts,… beg leave to express to you, the Chief Magistrate and supreme ruler over the United States, our fullest approbation of all the measures… you have been pleased to adopt, under direction of divine authority.
That emphatic repudiation of the concept of republican government was, of course, a repudiation of the Constitution itself, which they had promptly begun to subvert by forming the Federalist cabal and thus creating political parties, the agents of corruption foreseen by John Mercer, but evidently a danger underestimated by the other members of the Convention.(6) The Puritans thus began to exploit the rest of the nation with tariffs, absurdly imposed in addition to the natural tariff that was sufficient to encourage honest industry (i.e., the high cost of transportation across an ocean) and with banking monopolies to loot the general public. All this exploitation was doubtless sanctified in their minds by an intent eventually to attain such dominion over other Americans that they could start kicking them into righteousness.(7)
At the time of the Hartford Convention, the New England states did not secede (as, of course, they had every right to do, although they later denied that right to people who were less righteous than they) because they would no longer have been able to exploit the other states. If they had rejected the Constitution when it was proposed, they, of course, could not have started the exploitation in the first place. And they would have had no opportunity to foist on the nation their ideal, a dictatorship like Cromwell’s.(8)
What then? Would New England have enticed some other northern states to join the mercantile federation? Is it not likely that, deprived of exploitation through a federal government, the Puritans would have sought foreign allies and attempted an armed conquest of the other states long before they succeeded in destroying the Republic with the iniquitous and calamitous war they contrived in 1860? And if they failed to subdue the United States then, what heights of true culture might not our people have attained, assuming they had the wisdom to retain an obviously necessary limitation of the franchise written into a Constitution that, conceivably, might be today the framework of a great and independent nation?
You may be certain of one thing: with the franchise thus prudently limited, the United States would not have become the political and racial cesspool it is today, and decent Americans could still own property. (It is true that many witlings today think they have property because they rent houses and land from the usurers and tax-collectors of the vast engine of organized crime that governs them and tells them what to ‘think.’) And, obviously, the systematic liquidation of American farmers would never have been begun in 1920 in conformity with the Judaeo-Communist principle, so clearly enunciated by the mongrel who called himself Lenin,(9) that priority must be given to the ruin of farmers, whether peasants or landed proprietors, because the possessors of land can provide for their own sustenance and so cannot be reduced to total slavery and abject dependence on the whims of their alien rulers.
You may wish to speculate further on what might have been.(10) This note is intended only to show that the prime cause of the failure of the Constitution was not overlooked by the more prudent members of the Convention that drew it up.
(1) Cicero quotes the proverb as “dum anima est, spes est.” The jingle “dum spiro, spero ” must be Mediaeval, but I do not know when it first occurs and do not have a corpus of Mediaeval Sprichwoerter at hand. Many of my readers will think of Goldsmith’s amarulent or cynical paraphrase.
(2) The discussions at the Constitutional Convention may conveniently be found in Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the United States, edited by Charles Callan Tansill, and published as House Document 398 by the Congress in 1926. It is out of print at the Government Printing Office, but was reprinted by Spencer Judd, Box 39, Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1984, with a brief introduction by Frederick Tupper Saussy.
(3) Niggers and Indians were naturally excluded from the count of the population. There is some slight uncertainty about the figures for the total population and for the votes in some states; the actual number of voters was probably around 3.5%, although little more than 3.0% is shown by the statistics.
(4) The right of secession is, of course, implicit in the Constitution and was properly recognized by the New Englanders when it coincided with their own financial interests; their zeal for that right evaporated when their profits from the War of 1812 began to roll into the counting houses. Years later, with characteristically Puritanic hypocrisy, the same people, threatened with loss of their lucrative exploitation of the South, claimed that the Union was sacred and indissoluble, and they eventually found and elected a backwoods politician who was willing to “save the Union” by a war of aggression that was fought with a barbarity that horrified the civilized world — and, when successful, spread a moral and mortal infection to Europe. I need not add, of course, that not all descendants of the Puritans participated in the general hypocrisy; in many towns of New England, the rabble-rousing Abolitionists were given a very short shrift.
(5) For an enjoyable antidote to the adulation of the Puritans that you heard in school, see the learned work of the British historian, A.L. Rouse, Reflections on the Puritan Revolution (London, Methuen, 1986), which especially emphasizes their barbarous fanaticism. If one wished to argue in the “Liberal” manner, one could insist that the Puritans were anti-Christian: their real god was the vicious old Jew of the “Old Testament” myths, and, as we all know, they sent troops to raid the homes of persons suspected of celebrating Christmas.
(6) Everyone knows that George Washington in his farewell address emphatically warned the young nation against foreign alliances and idiotic participation in the rivalries of other nations, but few remember that he as emphatically warned against the disastrous consequences of permitting the formation of political parties, of which he had already seen the beginnings in 1796, for New England was already seeking to capture the nation with ‘Federalism.’ Again, we must note that we cannot indict all descendants of the Puritans. One of our earliest women of letters, Mercy Otis Warren, whose History of the American Revolution (1805) is an important historical source, saw in the Federalists a proof that the Republic had already failed through “selfishness and avarice.”
(7) The Puritans, it is true, abandoned Calvinism for Unitarianism and the like, but they retained their priggish self-righteousness, and their descendants eventually drowned in the flood of ‘democracy’ they helped start. It is true they did eventually develop a kind of aristocracy of culture — when it was too late. Around 1946 I became acquainted with a lady then in her sixties. She came from an old family in Boston and told me that as a child she was sent to a very select girls’ school, where she met a classmate whom she liked and wished to invite to her home. Her mother told her tactfully, “I am not disparaging your young friend, my dear — I’m sure she’s a very nice girl — but you see, if you invite her to our home, we would be in an impossible situation, because we would have to recognize and consult her parents. You see, my dear, although your young friend is, I am sure, a very nice girl, her father is a Senator, and we simply cannot know such persons socially.” For all their discriminating respectability, the lady’s parents seem never to have inquired why thieves became Senators. Marquand’s The Late George Apley is merely a superficial and somewhat pathetic story; he could have made it a tragedy.
(8) Much has been made of the “Mayflower Compact” and the Puritans’ ‘democracy.’ It is true that they opposed to monarchy a government by a parliament of elected representatives, but, of course, with the proviso that if the elected representatives voted wrong, the Army would go in, as in Pride’s Purge, and purify the parliament by hauling out all members who didn’t know what Yahweh wanted. One is reminded, appropriately, of the odious hypocrisy of Abraham Lincoln, who professed that he would never think of interfering with the government of the sovereign state of Maryland: he merely sent his army to surround the state’s legislature and drag off to prison legislators who voted wrong. The Puritan dictatorship in England was prevented from reaching an unmitigated tyranny by internal factions that partly neutralized one another. For example, the Levellers, who would have instituted an indiscriminate and total communism, were strongly opposed by property-owners and especially by the advocates of polygamy (polygyny, needless to say), who twice came reasonably close to making the system of marriage approved by Yahweh in the “Old Testament” legal and righteous in England.
(9) His mother was a Jewess, his father, a Tatar. He had no Russian blood.
(10) It is safe to assume that an independent South would have carried out Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, would have expanded into Texas, and would have fought and won the Mexican War, the only rationally justified war in our history. As for the War of 1812, shipping (including the slave trade) would probably have been in the hands of New England and other foreign nations. But you must take into consideration the factors that might have ruined the Southern Republic. Even under the economic dominion of New England, the South developed a very respectable industry of her own; freed from such dominion, Southern industry would have become much greater: Would the manufacturing interests have tried to overthrow the political supremacy of landowners? What would have been the results of the conflict of interests between the restless, untutored, and often mutinous people of the Frontier and the stable population of the Seaboard states, dominated by a cultured aristocracy? Other considerations will occur to you to moderate a confidence that the South would be today what it might (perhaps!) have become, if the Constitution had contained the indispensable restriction of the franchise.
* * *
Source: Liberty Bell magazine, January 1987