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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

A soldier and the most ardent of the Federalists


Of

such a Convention Washington was the only possible President; and he was drawn from a temporary and welcome retirement in his Virginian home to re-enter in a new fashion the service of his country. Under his presidency disputed and compromised a crowd of able men representative of the widely divergent States whose union was to be attempted. There was Alexander Hamilton, indifferent or hostile to the democratic idea but intensely patriotic, and bent above all things upon the formation of a strong central authority; Franklin with his acute practicality and his admirable tact in dealing with men; Gerry, the New Englander, Whiggish and somewhat distrustful of the populace; Pinckney of South Carolina, a soldier and the most ardent of the Federalists, representing, by a curious irony, the State which was to be the home of the most extreme dogma of State Rights; Madison, the Virginian, young, ardent and intellectual, his head full of the new wine of liberty. One great name is lacking. Jefferson had been chosen to represent the Confederacy at the French Court, where he had the delight of watching the first act of that tremendous drama, whereby his own accepted doctrine was to re-shape France, as it had already re-shaped America. The Convention, therefore, lacked the valuable combination of lucid thought on the philosophy of politics and a keen appreciation of the direction of the popular will which he above all men could have supplied.

The task before

the Convention was a hard and perilous one, and nothing about it was more hard and perilous than its definition. What were they there to do? Were they framing a treaty between independent Sovereignties, which, in spite of the treaty, would retain their independence, or were they building a nation by merging these Sovereignties in one general Sovereignty of the American people? They began by proceeding on the first assumption, re-modelling the Continental Congress--avowedly a mere alliance--and adding only such powers as it was plainly essential to add. They soon found that such a plan would not meet the difficulties of the hour. But they dared not openly adopt the alternative theory: the States would not have borne it. Had it, for example, been specifically laid down that a State once entering the Union might never after withdraw from it, quite half the States would have refused to enter it. To that extent the position afterwards taken up by the Southern Secessionists was historically sound. But there was a complementary historical truth on the other side. There can be little doubt that in this matter the founders of the Republic desired and intended more than they ventured to attempt. The fact that men of unquestionable honesty and intelligence were in after years so sharply and sincerely divided as to what the Constitution really _was_, was in truth the result of a divided mind in those who framed the Constitution. They made an alliance and hoped it would grow into a nation. The preamble of the Constitution represents the aspirations of the American Fathers; the clauses represent the furthest they dared towards those aspirations. The preamble was therefore always the rallying point of those who wished to see America one nation. Its operative clause ran: "We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, ... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." That such language was a strong point in favour of the Federalist interpreters of the Constitution was afterwards implicitly admitted by the extreme exponents of State Sovereignty themselves, for when they came to frame for their own Confederacy a Constitution reflecting their own views they made a most significant alteration. The corresponding clause in the Constitution of the Southern Confederacy ran, "We, _the deputies of the Sovereign and Independent States_, ... do ordain," etc., etc.


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