Interview With A Founding Father


“Well, normally about a half of the half that turned out.”

“And what does this man of government do?”

“Makes policy, sets the agenda for Congress, defends the country.”

“How does he defend the country?”

“As Commander in Chief.”

“Are you at war?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Then what power has he as Commander in Chief? He is that with regard only to the armed forces, not to the citizens.”

“Well, we live in a different world from yours.”

“So I notice.” He is looking up at a jet’s contrails.

“In an age of nuclear war,” I continue, “the President has to be able to respond to the threat of attack with our own nuclear response.”

“Of course—after Congress has declared war.”

“I’m afraid there would not be time for that in these days. He would have a matter of minutes to decide on activating the codes that release our missiles.”

“And there is no intervention between his deciding that and the action taking place?”

“No constitutional one.”

The judge abruptly sits down on the dirty street curb, holding his wig. “So there is no Constitution left. This is worse than I thought.”

“Well”—I try to cheer him up—“that is just for nuclear war. We hope that won’t happen. It is a once-in-a-lifetime matter.”

Our form of government did not allow us to create a republic. We went ahead and did it anyway.

Wilson rises, still wary. “Are your other wars declared by Congress, before this super-President of yours wages them?”

“Some are. Most recent ones have not been.”

He sits down again time with a deliberately forlorn air. “How does war get declared then?”

“The President sends troops off to Vietnam, or Beirut, or Grenada—or somewhere.”

“And Congress does not question this kind of act?”

“It tries to, but the President opposes it with executive privilege.”

Wilson jumps up and grabs the Constitution back. “Privilege? Where is that? What have you done to this Constitution? Privilege is not a republican term. It is like prerogative—something meant to protect government from the people. Government is legitimate only if it is an expression of the people. A people’s own expression has to be transparent to it. The people have to know what they are doing through all their intermediaries.”

“But you convened in secrecy at Philadelphia.”

“We were conspirators, mon. We were overthrowing a government. But the government we set up was not a secret one. It was one the people ordained and established to rule themselves. Those who keep secrets from them are not their representatives, cannot be speaking for them.”

“Well, what should we do? Call a convention to amend the Constitution? The Constitution itself allows for that.”

“That’s the difference between anything you call now and the one we held in 1787. Our form of government did not allow us to create a republic. We went ahead and did it anyway.”

We turned off Third Street, heading west toward where the Grand Procession had ended. Wilson’s memory is caught up now in the excitements of that day. “The warship float began to labor up this incline, though it was drawn by ten horses. It had a ‘crew’ of twenty-five seamen on its decks.”

“Was that your favorite float?”

“No, my favorite was the New Roof of the Grand Federal Edifice, with its thirteen pillars upholding a dome. At the end of the march, at Bush Hill, I mounted that float and gave the one speech of the day.”

The judge is panting now as he climbs an incline between shops boarded up. “The whole city went out from its confines and gathered in the field, forming all the other floats in a circle around the Federal Edifice. I spoke from the center of the circle, praising what the people had wrought. No other government was formed with such popular participation and debate at every level. I can tell you what I said, from heart: The Constitution ‘was discussed and scrutinized in the fullest, freest, and severest manner—by speaking, by writing, and by printing—by individuals and by publick bodies—by its friends and by its enemies. What was the issue? Most favourable....’” He was in full oration now, breathless but unstoppable—till the site of Bush Hill stopped him. We were on Sixteenth Street, crossing Spring Garden. The entire area was cluttered with dust from demolition and high-rise construction. Bulldozers were at work on the site where the entire city had gathered, once, to pledge itself to a new political creation. There was not a marker anywhere to recall that event.

“You have not fared well, Judge Wilson, in the hearts of your citizens.”

“My lodging there was always precarious, I am afraid. But I never doubted their right to govern themselves, so long as they showed they were willing to govern.”