Revolutionary ordinary citizens had the power
How do you decide which government is best for your brand new society? That was the question the Constitutional Convention of 1787 faced.
It had only been a few years since Gen. George Washington had accepted the sword of Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va. The American Revolution, its reasons and the requisite sacrifices were still fresh in the minds of our founders.
The fear of having another monarch — and the inevitable tyrant — was ever present in the founders’ minds. They had fashioned the Articles of Confederation, which invested any and all governing authority in only one branch of government, Congress. The plan had fatally limited any national government; it had effectively created 13 smaller sovereign nations.
In less than a dozen years, they learned an unavoidable lesson: There was a danger in not having an effective national government. The separate “kingdoms” of Vermont, Georgia or Virginia would have to defend themselves against marauding Indians, invading nations, or even neighboring states. They were on track to create 13 monetary denominations, 13 negotiated treaties with the same foreign nation and at least a few state-sponsored religions.
The Articles of Confederation had ensured that they were 13 dominoes waiting to topple.
The founders now understood that a strong central, national government was necessary for the peace, liberty and survival of every state and every citizen. The problem was, is and ever will be, how to keep that government from running amok and violating the Natural Rights of the citizenry.
After the Declaration of Independence, each state, no longer subject to the British crown, had written its own constitution. So, the 55 delegates who were all convinced of the wisdom of the rule of law had many examples to choose from.
They crafted a government like none before it: a Republic that invested the sovereignty of the nation in the people, the ones being governed. “The Law” they wrote restricted those who would govern, and limited what the government could or should do for/to the citizenry.
In Federalist Paper No. 1, Alexander Hamilton acknowledges the historical nature of our new Constitution when he asks:
“… Whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
The idea that a common, ordinary citizen could be trusted to make informed political decisions concerning himself and his society was revolutionary. It was an idea that would cause any member of the “ruling elite” great angst.
Today, we still have folks who perceive themselves as our “ruling elite,” and this concept causes them anguish as well.
I fear Hamilton’s next admonition was as prescient for today as it was then:
“If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”