Interview With A Founding Father

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Wilson looks over his shoulder with an impulse of caution. A bag lady on the corner of Chestnut Street, appraising his red dress, seems to think it a little too worn. “You noticed that about Rousseau, eh? I thought I kept it pretty hidden. Rousseau’s name was not popular in my circles. I never used it.”

“Sure you did. You cited The Social Contract three times in your law lectures of 1790.”

“Oh, but I never published those; my son did after my death. I don’t know what I would have done with the citations. They were just sketched in for the lectures. I meant to rewrite the lectures as the great treatise on American law.” His speech dwindles off in reverie. “They would have made my name.” He is gazing at what looks like the drawing of a house’s frame lifted above actual houses along Third Street. “What is that?”

“It marks the site and the scale of Franklin’s house.”

“You mean that is Market Street ahead? Where are the stalls? This is where the guns from the harbor saluted me during the procession. I turned and bowed toward the docks.”

“You later became familiar with another kind of dock.”

He hesitated, about to turn away and leave me. But the expounding fever was upon him. He could never resist lecturing a pupil. “Rousseau, now, understood the real point of republican government: that the people never surrender their sovereignty to the government. They retain the power to change government anytime they want, any way they want.”

“Why was that so important to you?”

“Don’t you see? The opponents of the Constitution said we were breaking the Articles’ rules for amendment—as if the people can make any authority higher than themselves. The people are not bound, Rousseau says, even by the social contract. They made it; they can unmake it at will.”

“But how are the people as a whole to know when they want to overthrow a government?”

“They have to find a way. We made up the devices of the drafting convention and ratifying conventions. We broke all the rules—articles and state constitutions too—by an appeal back to the people.”

“But the people did not vote directly on the Constitution, only for delegates to the ratifying conventions.”

“That was the most directly democratic procedure that could be used at the time. Even most state constitutions had not been ratified except by state legislatures sitting on ordinary business—the same bodies that ratified the Articles.”

“Well, Rousseau would not call that an expression of the general will. He wanted an assembly of all the citizens at one meeting.”

“Yes, but he violated one of his own rules. His assembly, formulating the general will, had to resolve itself into a committee of the whole in order to make the particular government. That legal fiction did not separate his legislators from his governors in a real way. Our popular vote, followed by the delegates’ action did—so long as the popular vote was a universal one.”

“Which, of course, it was not in your day. Not even women voted then.”

“They were not fully citizens yet. But those who were citizens voted. Besides, I was the only one at the drafting convention who wanted a popular vote for the President and senators as well as for representatives. You have caught up with me on senators but not yet on the President.”

“Yet you helped invent the Electoral College, which still elects our President indirectly.”

“Just as a second-best. I was for direct vote everywhere, in the Pennsylvania Constitution as well as the federal one. In fact, I was for mandatory voting. If one does not vote, one cannot be a citizen.”

“Force them to be free?”

“Ah, you do have Rousseau on your mind, don’t you? But how can you say a people is self-governing if it does nothing to formulate the general will? Don’t you still force people to serve on juries?”

“Yes.”

“Making laws is even more important than enforcing them. In time of war do you make citizens serve in the military?”

“Depends on the war.”

“Well, governing a country well is more important than defending it. How many citizens vote now?”

“More than half.”

“Do you still call your country a republic?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

He hands me back the Constitution with an air of defeat. “Don’t you do anything to make people act like citizens?”

“Naturally. We have a public school system meant to form citizens.”

“Do people attend?”

“They have to. It’s required.”

You force them to go to school so they can vote intelligently, but you do not force them to vote? I knew you were absentminded about politics; I did not know you were simpletons. Who governs you instead of the people?”

“Well, we normally think of the government as headed by the President. We speak of the Carter government, for instance, or the Nixon government.”

“And only half the people voted for these Presidents?”