“Actually men behave in their political lives with a disheartening illogicality. They live in a jungle of fear, filled with phantoms of what they have heard and imagined and been told. Their world is a world of a child’s nightmares – dark and brooding, crowded with dreads and anxieties, with the distortions of real objects, with the cruellest nonsequitors and anti-climaxes.”
- Max Lerner
Who wrote this document on which we now so heavily rely? Was it politicians, military men, patriots, philosophers, academics? How does this document differ in tone and intent from the
Declaration of Independence
? Many of the Constitution’s authors had political expertise, but the overwhelming common denominator was money. In his text,
Framing the Constitution
, Charles Beard suggests that the need to formalize the structure of government was urgent if the wealthy were to protect their interests. He describes the philosophies behind the two major schools of thought. Men like Jefferson, who wrote the impassioned
Declaration of Independence
, reasoned that there should be as little government as possible. They wanted to “defend the individual against all federal interference” (Beard 2). The revolution had just cost colonists their lives. They had fought hard for their national and individual independence. “A majority of the radicals viewed all government, especially if highly centralized, as a species of evil, tolerable only because necessary and always to be kept down to an irreducible minimum by a jealous vigilance” (Beard 2). Along with their suspicious and distrustful perception of government, these men believed in the inherent goodness and reasonableness of man. They were confident in their ability to self-govern and believed that “ ‘man was a rational animal endowed by nature with rights and an innate sense of justice’ . . . Occasional riots and disorders . . . were preferable to too much government” (Beard 2). Are the rights endowed here by nature the same rights Jefferson had earlier declared as endowed by the Creator? The language, word choice, indicates the changing roles of man and God. Are the rights no longer conferred through the spirit of God in man but exist inherently in man’s blood and bones, in his birthright? Because his rights may no longer come from God, man is able then to separate spirituality and religion from his civic life and to rely on his own values. The Constitution would be written with the wisdom of man.
There were those colonists who, though they had disagreed with the king’s heavy-handed ruling, agreed ideologically with the British system of government. They were not overly concerned with the rights of individuals. “The makers of the Constitution represented the solid, conservative, commercial and financial interests of the country” (Beard 5). It was true enough that the lack of government structure after the war was weakening the nation’s economy. Some practical measures had to be taken. A government that was large and powerful enough to handle all the concerns of the country’s security, financial and otherwise, had to be established. In securing the financial interests of the nation, or of those who had something to lose, the Framers knew they had to take into consideration the condition of the individual. After all, the right of the individual was one of the motivating principles on which the war was waged. They were well aware of the populist sentiment in the colonies and agreed there should be some provisions in the Constitution that give the individual power, at least over his property if not over himself. “[T]he solid conservative interests of the country were weary with talk about the ‘rights of the people’ and bent upon establishing firm guarantees for the rights of property” (Beard 3). The Framers work was underscored by rhetoric that suggested, as Madison states, “that it was necessary to base the political system on the actual conditions of ‘natural inequality’” (Beard 8). No where had the people ever really had any significant role in their own governance. The idea of sharing power to the extent that some Framers advocated was a new, and for some threatening, proposition. It was believed by some that only men of considerable wealth had the “virtue” and character to “support consistency and permanency” (Beard 6). In fact “many members of that august body held popular government in slight esteem and took the people into consideration only as far as it was imperative ‘to inspire them with the necessary confidence’” (Beard 6). It was a difficult balance to achieve in founding a strong government that could protect personal interests as well as open itself to the will of the population at large. The Framers would provide more of an appearance of popular government than really existed. Although the Framers developed the safety mechanism of shared power, those “few” elected or appointed would still make the decisions for the good of the “many” people. At the time of the Constitution’s creation, it was certain that only fairly wealthy landowners would be elected into those positions of power.
The Constitution organized the equally empowered governmental divisions and assignments of powers and duties. Included also were the rights of the individual citizen and states. But it would be the Judicial Branch, the Supreme Court Justices, who would rule for the people on so many matters of social, economic, legal, moral, and political issues. It was the Framers’ intent to establish a concrete yet malleable document so that reason would reign. Had the Constitution been an overtly strict and explicit document, there would be little room for debate and exchange. The Framers were well aware of the vast number of personal, political, economic, religious, philosophical differences that existed. If power was to be shared with the people, there had to be some flex, some basis on which the individual could legally pursue his happiness and ensure his liberty and prosperity. At the same time the Framers guaranteed their own rights to property and, therefore, prosperity, but the unanswered and unforeseeable questions would be left to future leaders. Today many of our disagreements are resolved by the Supreme Court, which seems to have taken full responsibility for interpreting our Constitution. Since its ratification, the balance of power has swayed and we find ourselves now, more than ever, waiting to hear what the Supreme Court has decided for us. The Supreme Court’s perspective has evolved over time, and the Justices have learned, too, that the “consent of the people” plays an important role in how they rule.