Who and what are Tea Partiers and others referring to when they speak of the original intent of the founding fathers?
I’m often perplexed by those people who refer to the founding fathers as a single entity presuming that when some of them came together in the summer of 1787 to write our present day Constitution they were of one mind before they arrived and were of like mind when they left. Actually the opposite is true. There is also the belief by those who use “founding fathers” in singular terms that there was some singular “original intent”; a perception that holds the view that there are no dynamics or evolutionary processes within human social structures.
A letter to the editor contributor to my local newspaper initiated this train of thought for me this morning by expressing his view that “we have disregarded original intent” and, using culinary vernacular, suggested that we “get back to ingesting the ‘original-intent’ diet the framers cooked up for us”. The writer at the onset informed us that for years he has “been reading and studying our U.S. Constitution. And as yet [had] not been able to get a clear picture of what the framers’ intent was in our following its formula.
Are these people referring to men other than the framers of the constitution as the founding fathers as they should with people like Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, who were not there when the Constitution was conceived, documented and signed?
These people might find it disturbing that the 55 men who originally signed in for the commencement of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in late May of 1787 were of varying opposing views; perhaps less so than when they left in September of that year. Most had come believing that a new, stronger central government was vital for the survival of the new confederation of states.
One of the strongest proponents of this view was James Madison, the singular figure that many on the right hold as “the acknowledged father of the Constitution”. They would be right in that his contribution was the basis for the constitutional context. It derived from his “Virginia Plan” that both he and fellow Virginian Governor Edmund Randolph had fashioned earlier. But Madison’s vision also held that the president should be elected by a newly formed “national legislature”, not the people, and that he originally nixed the proposal by fellow Virginian, George Mason, as the Convention was about to close to add a “Bill of Rights”, similar to the one that was eventually added two years after the Constitution was ratified by all 13 states in 1790.
Madison and many of those who came to Philadelphia were, in historian Richard Beeman’s word’s, concerned about the “weakness in the Confederation government that allowed the self-interests of any one state to overwhelm the public interests of the nation.” This view seems to be in direct conflict with a lot of those people who associate with the newly formed Tea Party of today as they give overbearing credence to the states rights’ position addressed in the 10 amendment, thus the term “Tenthers” for those who oppose most everything the central government represents.
Of the 55 that started, only 41 remained by the time the Convention delegates had concluded their business in September. There were those alliances between small Northern states and some Southern states that wanted to continue the states equal representation found in the older Articles of Confederation as opposed to Madison and others who wanted representation of the states to be based on population, a plan that would benefit populous states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina.
There were those, especially from non-Southern states that did not want to count slaves as “legitimate” people to base representation on; partly for moral reason but equally for their reluctance to consider the black race equal to the white man in most if not all respects. Those in the Southern states of course wanted to count their slaves amongst the representative population but if they could not have that, then most wanted to base representation on property ownership, which of course there too slaves would be considered highly valuable.
Delegates like purse-lipped Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Pierce Butler of South Carolina were suspicious of the democratic process by which each citizen had a say in who their elected officials were. Some like Alexander Hamilton wanted to give great amounts of authority to the Executive branch where others were reluctant to let any single individual have greater authority than the individual state legislatures. Virginia’s James McClurg proposed that the president could serve for life, provided he displayed “good behavior” at all times.
Today we hear many within the Tea Party pummel listeners with comments about their distrust of the federal government and how Washington wants “to tell us how to run our lives”. These people might be shocked to find that one prominent “founding father” at the Constitutional convention, George Mason (yes, the same man that fought for an inclusion of a “Bill of Rights”) wanted to establish sumptuary laws, laws that would restrict the personal consumption of luxury items. In today’s terms that would be mansions, yachts, private airplanes and fully loaded Cadillacs.
So how does one so easily conclude that there was a singular mindset explicitly implied in the Constitution? We must all keep in mind that the framers of the Constitution were by-and-large wealthy aristocratic white males whose primary focus was to protect the nature of property, primarily theirs. How does the intent of such men reflect the values of hard-working property-less people, including women and children and of course slaves and the minority races that were sparse then but would ultimately come to grow in large numbers.
Based on but this brief summation about some of the founding fathers I think we can safely assume that there was no singular mindset that existed amongst them. And we can further conclude that the notion of an “original intent” that did not allow for a changing world is also unfounded within the full context of that document.
When Virginia’s governor Edmund Randolph assisted others within a Committee of Detail to write a first draft half way through the convention, he “laid down two principles that, while they never appeared in the final report of the committee, seem extraordinary in their wisdom and foresight more than two centuries later.” They were
- to insert essential principle only, lest the operations of government should be clogged by rendering those provisions permanent and unalterable, which ought to be accommodated to times and events, and
- to use simple and precise language, and general propositions, according to the example of the constitutions of the several states. (For the construction of a constitution of necessarily [sic] differs from that of the law) *
I noted this component about the document in an earlier article and stated that the first gives credence to contemporary jurists and constitutional scholars who argue that ours is a ‘living constitution’ that must be interpreted in the light of changing times and circumstance, while the second supports the notion of those today “who argue for an ‘originalist’ interpretation of the Constitution.
I think the letter writer to the editorial column I mentioned earlier sums up the problem many today have with this concern. Reading the Constitution alone will not convey what the framers as a unit or as individuals “originally” intended. Nor will gleaning selected passages from the writings of preferred delegates who attended that convention in 1787.
Most who exposed their thoughts on this historic event did so many years after the Continental Convention concluded. Reluctant to allow the minutes of their meeting to be made public for fear they would be exploited by some for nefarious reasons, agreement was made amongst them to keep them secret for a while. They ultimately handed them over to George Washington, the convention’s chairman, who in turn conveyed them to the new Department of State in 1796. The new Congress prohibited their publication until 1818.
Madison, the so-called “father of the Constitution”, did so only after his death in 1835. For those who rely too much on Madison’s perceptions alone, expressed in the Federalist Papers, it would behoove them to know that though he kept copious notes for the most part in his role as a Constitutional framer, the Federalist Papers were written years after the fact, with reflections that changed somewhat from some initial views he expressed several decades earlier; probably “refined” overtime to reflect contemporary realities. What then would you call his “original intent”?
* Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman, page 270.