Would you give up your smart phone in exchange for world peace? That’s the question I asked my high school Civics and Government students recently. Only nine of eighty-five students in my three classes would be willing to sacrifice their phones to end wars on the earth!
One of the major themes in my instruction is, “It’s all about power.” Once we have power, very few of us willingly give it up. I asked the question to help my classes understand the dynamics of why the Framers of the Constitution decided to bypass the Congress of the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation and the state legislatures to go directly to the American people to get approval for the Constitution that they had created in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.
The Constitutional Convention had begun its proceedings with fifty-five delegates attending. By the end of the session, sixteen had packed their bags and walked out, refusing to sign the Constitution.
The departing sixteen were upset because they felt too much power had been given to the central government at the expense of the states. The convention delegates had been assembled to “revise the Articles of Confederation,” not throw them out and start anew. The Framers had gone way beyond their mandate by creating a whole constitution.
The strongest argument against the Constitution was that there was no bill of rights to protect the people from abuse of individual rights by a strong central government. Ironically, the reason a bill of rights was not originally included was because the Framers had not thought of it until the end of their four months of work. All of them had been separated from their families. All of them wanted to return home. They didn’t want to spend another two months hammering out a bill of rights.
Eventually, one of the thirty-nine delegates stood up to argue that a bill of rights was not necessary because every state already had them in their state constitutions. With a sigh of relief, the Framers passed the Constitution and went home to their families.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay got together to write a series of essays to be published in newspapers encouraging the people to ratify (approve) the Constitution. They were called “The Federalist Papers.” Those who supported the Constitution called themselves Federalists, while those who opposed it were labelled Anti-Federalists. Calling the opposition Anti-Federalists made them look weak and unorganized.
Those who opposed the Constitution had never met together to plan a strategy though almost all agreed that the Articles needed to be strengthened. They were not as clear and definitive in their arguments as the Federalists.
The debate over ratification was waged in the newspapers over ten months. Since the Federalists were more versed in their arguments and were more organized, they eventually got the necessary nine of thirteen states to ratify the Constitution by 1789.
The Federalists finally satisfied opponents in every state by promising to add a bill of rights after the first Congress convened. Out of this debate would emerge the two major political parties we know today. The Federalists favored a strong central government that included all groups, including immigrants. They tended toward a more trusting perspective of human nature. They are the Democrats today. The Anti-Federalists favored states’ rights over a strong central government and tended to be exclusivists against those who did not fit the mold (immigrants). They had a more negative view of human nature. They are the Republicans today.
Had the Framers gone to the Articles of Confederation Congress or to the state legislatures, they most surely would have failed to ratify the Constitution. Because they went directly to the people, they succeeded in passage of the Constitution. They understood that neither the Articles Congress nor the state legislatures would give up their power easily.
They were like my Civics students who would prefer to keep their phones rather than have world peace. Then, as now, it’s all about power and keeping it.