The Constitution: Was It An Economic Document?

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Both General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and his young cousin Charles, of South Carolina, were worried about this. The latter proposed a property qualification of $100,000 (a tidy sum in those days) for the Presidency, half that for the judges, and substantial sums for members of Congress. Franklin rebuked him. He was distressed, he said, to hear anything “that tended to debase the spirit of the common people.” More surprising was the rebuke from that stout conservative, John Dickinson. “He doubted,” Madison reports, “the policy of interweaving into a Republican constitution a veneration for wealth. He had always understood that a veneration for poverty & virtue were the objects of republican encouragement.” Pinckney’s proposal was overwhelmingly rejected.

What of the members of the lower house? When Randolph opened “the main business” on May 29 he said the remedy for the crisis that men faced must be “the republican principle,” and two days later members were discussing the fourth resolution, which provided for election to the lower house by the people. Roger Sherman of Connecticut thought that “the people should have as little to do as may be about the Government,” and Gerry hastened to agree in words now well-worn from enthusiastic quotation that “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” These voices were soon drowned out, however. Mason “argued strongly for an election … by the people. It was to be the grand depository of the democratic principle of the Govt.” And the learned James Wilson, striking the note to which he was to recur again and again, made clear that he was for “raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible.” He thought that both branches of the legislature—and the President as well, for that matter—should be elected by the people. “The Legislature,” he later observed, “ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole Society.”

A further observation is unhappily relevant today. It was a maxim with John Adams that “where annual elections end, there tyranny begins,” and the whole Revolutionary generation was committed to a frequent return to the source of authority. But the framers put into the Constitution no limits on the number of terms which Presidents or congressmen could serve. It was not that the question was ignored; it received elaborate attention. It was rather that the generation that wrote the Constitution was better grounded in political principles than is our own; that it did not confuse, as we so often do, quantitative and qualitative limitations; and that—in a curious way—it had more confidence in the intelligence and the good will of the people than we seem to have today. It is, in any event, our own generation that has the dubious distinction of writing into the Constitution the first quantitative limitation on the right of the majority to choose their President. It is not the generation of the framers that was undemocratic; it is our generation that is undemocratic.

It is relevant to note, too, that the Constitution contains no property qualification for voting. Most states, to be sure, had such qualifications—in general a freehold or its equivalent—and the Constitution assimilated such qualifications as states might establish. Yet the framers, whether for reasons practical or philosophical we need not determine, made no serious efforts to write any property qualifications for voting into the Constitution itself.

The question of popular control came up clearly in one other connection as well: the matter of ratification. Should the Constitution be ratified by state legislatures, or by conventions? The practical arguments for the two methods were nicely balanced. The decisive argument was not, however, one of expediency but of principle. “To the people with whom all power remains that has not been given up in the Constitutions derived from them” we must resort, said Mason. Madison put the matter on principle, too. “He considered the difference between a system founded on the Legislatures only, and one founded on the people, to be the true difference between a league or treaty and a Constitution.” Ellsworth’s motion to refer the Constitution to legislatures was defeated by a vote of eight to two, and the resolution to refer it to conventions passed with only Delaware in the negative.

Was the Constitution designed to place private property beyond the reach of majorities? If so, the framers did a very bad job. They failed to write into it the most elementary safeguards for property. They failed to write into it limitations on the tax power, or prohibitions against the abuse of the money power. They failed to provide for rule by those whom Adams was later to call the wise and the rich and the wellborn. What they did succeed in doing was to create a system of checks and balances and adjustments and accommodations that would effectively prevent the suppression of most minorities by majorities. They took advantage of the complexity, the diversity, the pluralism, of American society and economy to encourage a balance of interests. They worked out sound and lasting political solutions to the problems of class, interest, section, race, religion, party.