The Year That Changed EverythingRoundup
tags: Constitution, early Republic, founders
AKHIL REED AMAR is the Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale University. He is the author of The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840.
In 1788, We the People of the United States ordained a Constitution to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” It was the year that changed everything. Yet for the past century, posterity has profoundly misunderstood what happened then—who did what, why they did it, and how, and also what they failed to do that needed doing.
Much of the confusion began in 1913, when the American historian Charles Beard published his muckraking blockbuster, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, the 20th century’s most influential work of constitutional scholarship. Beard portrayed the Constitution’s leading drafters as moneymen lining their own pockets and those of their elite confreres. In Beard’s account, George Washington and company were Gilded Age robber barons avant la lettre, fat cats rigging the rules for themselves and other one-percenters.
Beard got lots wrong about the personal finances of various Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and it took decades of scholarship to set the record straight. By then, much of the cultural damage had been done. Many sophisticates came to see the Constitution’s democratic pretensions as a sham. In another best seller published two-thirds of a century after Beard’s, the popular historian Howard Zinn repackaged neo-Beardian myths, disillusioning a new generation of Americans.
The personal finances of the Founders aside, the biggest fact undermining Beard and his disciples has lain in plain sight all along: The Constitution was put to a vote. This is the obvious meaning of the subject, object, and verbs of the document’s dramatic opening sentence: “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution.” And what a vote it was. The breadth and depth of inclusion were stunning—unprecedented and, in hindsight, transformative.
Before 1788, only a few democracies had existed in world history. Across most of the planet most of the time, most humans were ruled by princes and priests. None of the democratic or quasi-democratic regimes that had preexisted the American Revolution—various ancient Greek Republics, pre-imperial Rome, the post-feudal British and Swiss nations—had ever promulgated written constitutions that had been put to any sort of special popular vote. In 1776, America’s Declaration of Independence did not undergo a special vote, nor did any of the Revolutionary state constitutions born that year. In 1781, a continental legal blueprint, the Articles of Confederation, likewise launched without a special popular vote.
By contrast, in 1788, ordinary folk across the continent weighed in on the proposed Constitution with both voices and votes. In eight of the 13 states, the usual property qualifications were lowered or eliminated; nowhere were they raised. In New York, all free, adult male citizens could vote—no race tests, religious tests, literacy tests, or property qualifications. These were not the ordinary rules for ordinary New York elections, but all of America understood the need for a special democratic mandate for the bold plan proposed by Washington and company. Never before had so many people played so direct a role in deciding their collective fate.
Beard and his disciples downplayed the astonishing extent of popular deliberation and newspaper discourse that accompanied the vote. Although the Constitution’s draftsmen initially met behind closed doors, secrecy lapsed when the proposed Constitution was unveiled in September 1787. Immediately, the delegates chattered like magpies about what had transpired in the conclave, and why.
Not everyone in the ratification process supported the proposal, but skeptics said their piece and newspapers covered almost every word. Americans conversed but did not combat. No one died from political violence in an entire year of intense debate, and apart from a few fisticuffs here and there, no one was even seriously injured. Critics were not bullied or ostracized. Rather, several eventually became presidents, vice presidents, and Supreme Court justices. The best criticisms of the Philadelphia draft were quickly incorporated into a set of amendments—the Bill of Rights—that championed the very rights of speech, press, petition, and assembly so prominently on display in 1788.
If the Constitution was not all about enriching the Federalist few, then what was its driving impulse? Simple: The document aimed to create a “more perfect union”—that is, an indivisible union on the model of that of Scotland and England in 1707—in order to provide for “the common defense,” which would in turn secure “the blessings of liberty.”