Interview With A Founding Father


“All of us at the drafting convention. We were plotting the overthrow of the government, mon!” His Scots accent comes out when he waxes revolutionary. “We had all sworn oaths to the various constitutions—state and federal—and we meant to break them. Why do you think we were meeting in secret? If our legislatures had known what we were up to, they would have recalled us for breaking our instructions. We had sworn that the Confederation should be perpetual, that it could not be changed without unanimous assent of the states. Yet our plan called for a breakup of that Confederation if any nine states could be found to ratify the new one. We posted guards at the State House so no one could hear what we were up to.”

“But the world would know when you published the document.”

“That’s when we scurried back to our lairs as private citizens. The convention went out of existence; no one could find it after it broke up. George Washington took the records home to Mount Vernon, where no one would have the nerve to ask for them.”

“Why would Washington break his oath to the Confederation?”

“Oh, he had none, laddie. He was one of the few of us who held no civil office under the Confederation. But he was encouraging others to break their oaths, as calm as could be. There were many who wanted to skulk out of that chamber and never meddle more with this dangerous business. But they had not the nerve to skulk out under his eyes, I tell you.”

“I have always heard that Washington did practically nothing at the convention.”

“He sat there. That did everything. If he had gone, we all would have. Franklin was too weak to protect us by that time. We needed something to hide behind. He gave us that.”

“Was that his only purpose?”

“That was his good to us. We did him good, too, especially we Jemmys. We gave him a four-month course in government he would never forget. We knew we were tutoring the ruler if our plan went through. He fatigued you just by the intensity of his listening. I was speaking to him the whole time, and I spoke more than anyone but Madison and that insufferable ladies’ man Gouverneur Morris. I poured out my learning for the man, and I certainly expected a higher post than the one he gave me.”

“You wanted to be Chief Justice.”

“Yes. I could understand the politics of his giving the job to Jay in the first place. But to be passed over for Rutledge and Ellsworth! That was humiliating.”

“What do you think you taught Washington most forcefully in the convention?”

“Accountability to the people. They are the sovereigns; he is just their servant.”

“Is that what is meant by limited government?”

“Republicanism is not necessarily more limited in what it does than any other form of government. It just differs in the justification for its energy.”

“But what about the checks and balances we all learn about as central to the Constitution?”

“Do you have a text of the Constitution there? Find me the term checks in there. Find balances there.”

“Well, but it pits one power against another.”

“Show me where,” Wilson says triumphantly, grabbing my little copy of the Constitution and waving it in my face. He always considered the document peculiarly his own. “It is an empowering document, not a limiting one. Just look at the Preamble. Each of the first three articles says that the powers of legislation, execution, and judging all shall be in the particular department.”

“Yes, but those powers are meant to check each other.”

“It’s not in the text.”

“It’s just common sense. Three equal powers are bound to contend with and control each other.”

“Equal?” His face reddened. “Where is equal?. You cannot execute laws, or give judgment on the laws, until you have laws. There is no equal in the text or in the very idea of a republic, a government in which people govern themselves by laws. As Madison put it in The Federalist (which, by the way, did not get near the circulation in 1787 of my two speeches on the Constitution), ‘In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates.’”

“Then why have separate powers at all, if two are to be subordinated to the one?”

“Well, division of labor makes for efficiency. The Congress found that out under the Articles of Confederation when it had to deliberate on all the matters that should have gone to a separate executive or judiciary department. That Congress had to stretch the Articles, to create a kind of executive not provided for. But the real reason for separation is to prevent the same people from making general law and applying it to particular cases; that would corrupt the legislator by making private concerns his legislative duty.”

“You talk like Rousseau.”