How History Made The Constitution


It took an Englishman, William Gladstone, to say what Americans have always thought: “The American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” From this side of the water, however, the marvel has not been so much the unique system of government that emerged from the secret conclave of 1787 as the array of ordered and guaranteed freedoms that the document presented. “Every word of [the Constitution],” said James Madison, the quintessential Founding Parent, “decides a question between power and liberty.”

In its treatment of individual and institutional liberty, the Constitution that the delegates signed on September 17, 1787, afforded a remarkable spectrum of protection. Covering every aspect of the tripartite national government and many activities up to then subjects only of state concern, the mint-new Constitution could truly be called “a self-supporting bill of rights.”

Like the original Bill of Rights, which the English Parliament had extracted from William and Mary in 1689, the Constitution imposed restrictions on the sovereign—that is, in our case, on the power of the government itself. And like the legislation of 1689, the constitutional restraints rested upon widely shared historical memories. Our Constitution thus represents a national effort to bring the lessons of the past into the life of the present—and of the future. The men in Philadelphia were practical historians, aware, more than a hundred years before George Santayana, that those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.

The past that educated eighteenth-century Americans studied and mastered, mastered as thoroughly as today we know politics or even sports, came mostly from English history, which separated into three stories: the struggles among various royal contenders; the battles between crown and Parliament; and the efforts by both the legislature and George III to stifle American liberties.

From beginning to end the charter that emerged from Philadelphia’s State House addressed specific problems of free government that the framers carried in the forefront of their collective historical memory.

The very first portion of the Constitution deals with the selection, organization, and powers of the national legislature. Beyond the obvious problems of practical politics and political theory, the framers faced a particular psychological difficulty. As revolutionaries they admired and identified themselves with the British Parliament, which had, after all, during an eventful half-century sparked the battles with Charles I that brought on the Civil War and interrupted the monarchy; effected the Restoration; forced an abdication; and, finally, created a new order between crown and people.

At the same time, the Parliament the Americans directly remembered bubbled with political and financial corruption. It was an institution not even nominally representative, leaving large numbers of citizens, at home and abroad, totally without representation; an institution frequently unresponsive to the needs—let alone the views—of the governed; an institution demonstrably subject to unscrupulous direction by venal noblemen and a foolish, willful king.

King George had already demonstrated an insidious and probable route to tyranny.

To constitution writers as to ordinary people, in 1787 and now, recent experiences have the strongest influence. The framers plainly needed no reminders of the misdeeds of their British contemporaries. But we should also remember that the other historical matrix of the Constitution, England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, was considerably closer in time to the Philadelphia convention than, for example, Grover Cleveland’s first administration is to us.

Moreover, the technological acceleration that has propelled us a sidereal distance from the gaslight era did not separate King William III from George Washington. Mulling the story of the seventeenth century, the framers contemplated a context entirely familiar. They required neither mental effort nor abnegation of scientific advances to identify themselves with their forebears. James Madison could more comfortably have conversed with Algernon Sidney, the Whig martyr of 1683, than could George Shultz with Thomas F. Bayard, Cleveland’s Secretary of State.

With such contemporary history a part of the debates and the debaters, it was natural that the legislature that the convention proposed would clearly embody both the distrust of Parliament that had characterized the pre-Revolutionary crescendo and an effort to ensure that the legislative branch would resemble the heroes who brought forth the English Bill of Rights of 1689, rather than the villainous crew that had concocted the Intolerable Acts of 1774.

The Americans still saw the British national legislature, resting as it did on a narrow electoral base, not as a counterpoise to the stupidity and political excesses of an illiberal, reactionary executive but rather as his partner or tool (perhaps both) in destroying the nation’s liberty and the individual’s freedom. Election of the members of Congress “by the People of the several States” was, as the Revolutionary patriot William Dawes told the Massachusetts convention, the “acquisition of a new privilege by the people....”