HIST 116: The American Revolution

Lecture 24

 - Creating a Nation


Professor Freeman discusses the national debate over the proposed Constitution, arguing that in many ways, when Americans debated its ratification, they were debating the consequences and meaning of the Revolution. Some feared that a stronger, more centralized government would trample on the rights and liberties that had been won through warfare, pushing the new nation back into tyranny, monarchy, or aristocracy. The Federalist essays represented one particularly ambitious attempt to quash Anti-Federalist criticism of the Constitution. In the end, the Anti-Federalists did have one significant victory, securing a Bill of Rights to be added after the new Constitution had been ratified by the states.

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The American Revolution

HIST 116 - Lecture 24 - Creating a Nation

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Three-Fifths Compromise [00:00:00]

Professor Joanne Freeman: On Thursday, I gave the world’s most condensed lecture about the Constitution, and I mentioned three controversies that represented long-standing concerns in Revolutionary America: the question of representation, the problem of slavery, and then the question of a national executive — so that really boils down to the problem of investing power in one man. Now I did manage to discuss all three of those things briefly before the end of the lecture.

I did not have time to discuss one last issue, which I do want to talk about here before I go into the real topic of today’s lecture. I just ran out of time. And it actually combines two of those issues. It’s the combination of the problem of representation and the problem of slavery, and it’s something you’ve all studied in high school, I am sure, and that is the Three-Fifths Compromise. And in a sentence, the Three-Fifths Compromise is the decision to count three-fifths of a state’s slaves in apportioning representatives, presidential electors and direct taxes. So obviously by doing that — and that is a compromise of sorts — it is trying to grapple with the problem of slavery and the question of representation, but obviously that’s a compromise that bolsters Southern political power.

Now the great historian of slavery, Yale professor emeritus David Brion Davis, has this little calculation associated with this issue. Davis writes that in the Continental Congress there had been five states in which slavery was a major institution. So the Southern states in the Continental Congress had about thirty-eight percent of the seats in that Congress. Because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, when the first U.S. Congress opened under the new Constitution, Southern states now had forty-five percent of the seats in the House, so thirty-eight to forty-five is a significant slide. Now that doesn’t stay ingrained that way, because population increases in the North and things change over time, but certainly that’s one way in which you can see the impact of that Three-Fifths Compromise.

Now in a way that Compromise — it’s a great segue into my lecture today — it’s a great example of the larger dynamic of the period that we’re focusing on here toward the end of the course. Because, as we’ve been looking at in the Constitutional Convention — as we’re going to see today when we’re looking at ratification — at the heart of the political developments that we’re looking at in this period is compromise: compromise between North and South; compromise between big states and small states; compromise between people who want to centralize power and people who want strong state governments.

Chapter 2. Difficulties in Ratifying the Constitution: Exchanges between Jefferson and Madison, and Ezra Stiles’s Diary [00:02:53]

So basically what we’re looking at in this period is Americans deciding where and how to invest power, obviously a highly charged decision that would have been impossible to make without a string of compromises. And in a way, as we’re going to be discussing today, this is sort of a fundamental question at the heart of the Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Where should the nation invest power? Where does power go?

So in a way, if you look back to the beginning of the course, think about the Revolution, think about some of the central issues, you could say that the Revolution certainly was about power. Right? It was a rebellion against what many perceived as tyrannical power, and that means a lot of things but to sum that all up in a sentence, you could say that. You could say that the 1770s and then the 1780s show Americans trying to figure out how to rebalance and reorganize power — the power of state — that they strip away the British administration and now they have to figure out where else to place power and how to balance it. And we’ve seen the Articles of Confederation and now the Constitution, which is again part of this ongoing dialogue trying to figure out the balance of power in all sorts of different ways.

And it’s no wonder — if you think about what I’ve already just talked about as far as the Constitution is concerned — it’s no wonder that it demanded a string of difficult and often experimental compromises. Creating the Constitution and — as we’ll see today — ratifying the Constitution was a difficult process. We tend to think of the outcome and we don’t think of the process,

And I’m always reminded of this fact when I read an exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison, and it’s actually written not long after the Constitution goes into effect. I think it’s written in early 1790, and at that point Jefferson had been overseas, he’d been in France on diplomatic duty, so he’s off in the distance knowing that they’re debating the Constitution in the United States, but he’s on foreign shores, lounging in salons, chatting about philosophical issues with the French. Meanwhile, Madison is in the Constitutional Convention slaving away, and then he’s outside of it sort of hammering away at ratification, so Madison’s clawing over the issue of the Constitution; Jefferson’s kind of looking from afar.

So he writes this letter to Madison early 1790 saying that no generation should be bound to the actions of any previous generation. It’s one of those Jefferson letters in which he’s like: ‘I have an interesting idea, let me share it with you,’ and he starts out with this sort of idea about generations. Each generation is a distinct thing and should never be bound by the one that came before — and it has this famous line. Some of you may have heard it already: “The earth belongs … to the living,” right? — that the living should be controlling things; the dead hand of the past should not have weight in the present.

In typical Jefferson style he then calculates what a generation is. Right? It’s not enough to say generations are distinct. He says, Well, how long is a generation anyway? I will calculate this out. Oh, a generation is nineteen years’ — by Thomas Jefferson. So he decides a generation is nineteen years and then says to Madison, ‘So every nineteen years we need a new Constitution.’ [laughs] Okay. So Jefferson, writing to the slaving-away-Constitution guy, says, ‘Let’s do this every nineteen years. I think that would be much fairer. It wouldn’t bind the present to the past.’

Now when I read that letter and then I read Madison’s response, Madison is really tactful. Madison’s a tactful guy, and he’s tactful in his response, but when you look beneath the surface of Madison’s reply, I always feel like what you see there is this sustained howl of disbelief, like: ‘What!? Yeah, you try that next time, Teej, and then you come back here and tell me you want to do that in nineteen years. [laughter] No.’ So Madison’s not happy about it but he actually is tactful, and what he says to Jefferson is, he praises Jefferson’s, quote, “many interesting reflections.” [laughs] It’s like: ‘Thank you, Mr. Madison’ — and then adds, unfortunately, quote, they are “not in all respects compatible with the course of human affairs,” or in other words, real people don’t act that way [laughs] — like Jefferson, nice idea, not going to work in implementation. That’s not for real life. For real people, it doesn’t work, but cute idea; keep them coming. Like, it’s interesting. We can just keep the conversation going; we’re not doing another Constitution in nineteen years.

So that’s certainly one compromise that Madison is not willing to sign on to, but of course the compromises don’t end with the closing of the Federal Convention. Creating the Constitution is a major accomplishment. Now it has to be ratified. There needed to be nine states to ratify it for it to go into effect, and each state would have its own ratifying convention to decide the issue. Now things would have been difficult enough if that was the only challenge at hand — if all that they were facing was ratification debates in the states — but the fact is, there were a slew of things that could have gone wrong even before we got to actual ratification.

For one thing, the Confederation Congress might just disapprove of the Constitution and refuse to send it on to the states. It was entirely possible that the Congress might have said, ‘You know, you didn’t just amend the Articles. You wrote a new Constitution. I’m sorry. We don’t consider that valid. Nice try. We’re not going to send it on’ — and that would have been a little interesting moment. It’s just as possible that individual states might refuse to consider it for the same reason. And even if some states did consider this Constitution and did decide to ratify it, if large influential states like Virginia or Massachusetts or New York rejected the Constitution, their influence might actually compel other states to follow their example and vote against it.

So all of this is sort of looming out there. It’s unclear if any of this is going to happen, but for those who are really supporting this new Constitution, they really knew that they had a pretty big challenge facing them. If the Constitution made it to the states for ratification, if the states agreed to consider it, then they had to worry about the actual debate over whether this Constitution was a just, trustworthy division of power. Now, the first horrible possibility did not take place, and the Confederation Congress passes on the Constitution to the states for consideration on September 28, 1787, but still, with the question of ratification looming, clearly the fate of the Constitution is left hanging for a good many months.

And I mentioned last time I was going to go back to Ezra Stiles, because his diary is useful and wonderful — and I’m going to go right back here to Ezra Stiles just for a few minutes. Because his diary shows you one man — certainly one elite, highly educated, influential man with very high-placed friends — but still one man who is watching events unfold related to the Constitution, and is trying to figure out what he thinks about them. He’s interested to know what’s happening. He’s not sure what he thinks and he’s trying to figure this out.

So one thing that his diary shows is that certainly he was intensely interested in whatever the heck was going on in Philadelphia. He didn’t know what was going on in Philadelphia, but he really wanted to know. And on June 19, he apparently asked Yale College seniors to debate the following question: “Whether the States acted wisely in send[in]g Delegates to the Gen. Convention now sitting in Philadelphia?” I don’t know what they’re doing, but Yale students, debate amongst yourselves. Do you think that was a good idea? In November of 1787, the question that he poses for Yale College seniors has changed. Now he says, Yale College seniors, debate for yourself: “Whether it is expedient for the States to adopt the new Constitution?”

In late December, some of his curiosity gets satisfied because he actually gets to spend the night with Abraham Baldwin, who had been a delegate in the Convention, so this is his chance. There’s a guy who was there. He’s going to really sort of plug away at Baldwin, find out what really happened. And at the end of the evening this is what Stiles wrote in his diary:

“I have formed this as my Opinion. 1. That it is not the most p[er]fect Constitution yet 2. That it is a very good one, & that it is advisable to adopt it. However, 3. That tho’ much of it will be permanent & lasting, yet much of it will be hereafter altered by future Revisions. And 4. That the best one remains yet to be investigated.”

And then he goes on to add: “When the Convention was proposed I doubted its Expediency. 1. ” — he’s really a guy for lists —

“1. Because I doubted whether our wisest Men had yet attained Light eno’ to see & discern the best, & what ought finally to prevail. 2. Neither did I think the People were ripe for the Reception of the best one if it could be investigated. And yet 3. I did not doubt but Time & future Experience would teach, open & lead us to the best one. And tho’ we have got a much better one than I expected, & a very good one, yet my Judgt still remains as before.”

And then he gets very specific, and he says, “I think there is not Power enough yet given to Congress for firm Government.” So he thinks about that on the one hand. At the same time he worries that surrendering too much power to this new government will end up, quote, “prostratg the Sovereignty of the particular States.” On the one hand, he worries that the President might become, quote, “an uncontrollable & absolute Monarch.” On the other hand, he says, “I think — ” — First he says, “I think the last as well guarded as possible” so yeah, he might become a monarch, but I think the Constitution did as well as it could to prevent that from happening, and then goes on to say, “I know not whether it is possible to vest Congress with Laws, Revenues, & Army & Navy, without endangering the Ruin of the interior Powers & Liberties of the States.”

And that’s a long passage for someone to put in his own diary, but what’s interesting about that to me is you can see Stiles going back and forth. He says it’s good but there’s probably a better one; it’s better than I expected, but somehow it’s not good enough; it doesn’t give enough power to Congress, but maybe it gives too much power and the states will be prostrated; maybe the President is too powerful, but if we give some of that power to congress maybe Congress will end up really destroying the states. So you can see him there sort of reasoning through what he thinks about the Constitution, and in one way or another, it’s boiling down to the balance of power; where should power be. He’s not exactly sure where power should be. He knows it’s the issue, but he’s not quite sure how to find his way out. So clearly — and Stiles is an example of this — although the delegates of the Constitutional Convention had agreed on a new form of government, there was certainly not some huge, sweeping national consensus on the best kind of government for the new American nation.

Chapter 3. Debates on Balance of Power between Anti-Federalists and Federalists [00:14:19]

So the ratification debates throughout the states — except for Rhode Island, which is not having a debate — but in the rest of the states, the ones that are actually having big ratification debates, these are really real debates. And often, these debates focused on the question of power. As suggested by Stiles, one big question along these lines was: how do you divide power between the national government and the states? Patrick Henry of Virginia had this to say about the Constitution, even before he got past its first three words. Patrick Henry is upset by the first three words of the Constitution. This doesn’t bode well for the Virginia debate. Henry says,

“My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the People, instead of We, the States? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not be agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated national government.”

Samuel Adams is more concise, but has the same idea. He also — those first three words — He can’t get past the first three words. He says, “As I enter the Building I stumble at the Threshold.” Constitution — We, the people? We, the people? What is that? What does that suggest about this government? They’re both basically asking, what kind of a government is this? It’s not a league of states, a confederation of states. It doesn’t seem to be about the states. It appears to be some kind of new powerful national government linking itself with the American people and potentially dismissing the importance of individual states.

In the minds of men like Henry and Adams, if this was a really federal constitution surely the document should begin with “we, the states” as opposed to “we, the people.” What they’re getting at — Henry and Adams — in those kinds of statements is one of the most unique aspects of the proposed Constitution, and I think in a sense its most brilliant compromise. And that’s the idea of federalism: the idea that both the states and the national government could have large areas of power with the federal courts sort of acting as arbiters about the limits of state and federal power. The real brilliance of federalism is that it suggested that sovereignty could be divided between two levels of government. That was an interesting idea. It was one that many people didn’t believe could actually be put into play, but it’s a brilliant suggestion, a really brilliant compromise.

For a population of people who were worried about the birth of some kind of tyrannical centralized national government, the concept of federalism at least had some potential. On the other hand, the idea of nationalism was a lot more frightening. Right? Nationalism suggests one big national blob and the obliteration of states, or as Stiles put it, the prostration of the states. It’s interesting to note that in the Constitution, the word “national” does not appear — and as a matter of fact, not only is the word “national” not in the original Constitution, but during the debates when someone put it in, somebody else always took it out. Right? No, no, we’re not talking about national. It’s federal. It’s all federal. It’s not the scary big national thing. It’s a federal Constitution. And that’s why, of course, the people who are defending the Constitution call themselves Federalists, not nationalists, and thus the opponents call themselves Anti-Federalists.

So federalism is a really brilliant compromise in this battle over where to invest power, but obviously it did not solve all questions, and for some people it didn’t even solve any of the questions. The ongoing ratification debate was actually really fierce. And since by default we end up sort of all siding with the Federalists, let’s look for a moment at the Anti-Federalists and the sorts of things that they were arguing in these debates throughout all of the states.

For one thing, like everyone else, they are concerned with the placement of power. They worry that this new national executive is going to be a tyrant and eventually a king. They worry that state rights, state boundaries, state constitutions will be violated by a tyrannical national government. They fear that the Constitution’s going to foster the creation of a standing army, which everyone of course believes to be the tool of tyranny. They fear that some kind of overbearing aristocracy is going to take over and repress the common man. They fear a lack of proper representation. They fear that they’re not going to have the right sort of a voice, or any voice, in this new centralized government.

When you read about these fears in their original form — and of course throughout this period and throughout all of these debates they’re writing newspaper essays; they’re writing pamphlets; they’re giving speeches. This is a literal debate in print and in person, and when you read some of these Anti-Federalist essays and pamphlets, you can really see how some of them are directly relatable to the Revolution just fought and hopefully won. I guess in their mind maybe it hadn’t been won yet because it depends on what happens with this government. They’re talking about tyranny. They’re talking about monarchy. They’re talking about violated liberties. They’re talking about aristocracy. They’re talking about unjust representation. You could sort of draw a line and understand where these fears come from.

Just listen to how some Anti-Federalists actually expressed these fears. One writer wrote that the Constitution was, quote, “the most odious system of tyranny that was ever projected.” Patrick Henry, who is always useful for wonderful quotes, in the Virginia Convention says that by giving so much power to a new national government, quote, “the tyranny of Philadelphia [the Federal Convention] may be like the tyranny of George III.” Okay. You can’t draw a more direct link than that. Right? Okay, Constitution, George III, tyranny — directly harkening right back to the Revolution. And for many people these arguments really rang true.

Now of course, in the end the Federalists proved successful, this despite the fact that they really were promoting a pretty radical change of government, and there are a good number of reasons why they’re successful. I’m just going to mention a few here, and one of them in a sense is really obvious but makes a lot of sense that it acts in their favor, and that is: the Federalists are really national-minded, so they’re actually thinking beyond the bounds of their states and it makes them much more likely to be able to create some kind of united publicity campaign to argue on a national level in a way that perhaps Anti-Federalists couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Also one reason why the Federalists prove successful is partly because the Anti-Federalists don’t offer any alternative to the Constitution. They critique what’s there but they don’t offer an alternative suggestion, so the debate is criticism and the Federalists defending and countering, criticism and the Federalists defending and countering. That’s a very particular kind of debate. If the Anti-Federalists had come forward with another suggestion, it would have been a very different kind of debate.

In some ways you might argue that the Federalist victory was something of an Anti-Federalist default. As South Carolina Anti-Federalist Aedanus Burke put it after the fact, “We had no principle of concert or union.” We were sort of all objecting on our own and we didn’t have any unified campaign. Or, as Madison put it, I think in a little bit of an exaggeration, the Anti-Federalists, quote, “had no plan whatever. They looked no farther than to put a negative on the Constitution and return home.” Okay. So maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but in fact there was no obvious concrete alternative presented by the Anti-Federalists and that really was a fundamental weakness in their position.

Chapter 4. In Defense of the Constitution: The Federalist Essays [00:22:33]

This does not mean, however, that there were no good arguments against the Constitution, and the best proof of that is the Federalist essayswhich you’re going to be reading this week, because those essays aren’t just explaining the Constitution; they’re defending the Constitution. And they’re defending it against this sea of fears and accusations and all these sort of wild ideas floating around about what might happen or what’s implied or what’s suggested or what’s allowable in this new government.

The Federalist essays were Hamilton’s idea, and Hamilton invited his nationalist buddy, James Madison, to join him in the effort and they also invited John Jay to take part — and John Jay ended up getting sick, so he wrote a few essays and then he dropped out so, as I’m sure you well know, most of them are written by Madison and Hamilton. TheFederalist was not the only printed defense of the Constitution. There were lots of them. There was obviously — As I said, it’s a big print debate, but the Federalist was something that was written with really big ambitions because its authors really essentially were creating a broad, comprehensive, step-by-step defense of the Constitution, and they really hoped that by swaying the state of New York in favor of ratification, maybe they would bring other states like Virginia along in its wake.

The essays were all signed “Publius.” The authors all wrote under the same pseudonym because they actually wanted the essays not to seem like the crafty arguments of two really leading nationalists who were going to say anything to get us to sign on to the Constitution. They wanted to suggest that these were just even-handed, rational ideas that were sort of generally out in the public sphere. Now of course among insiders, people figured out who the authors were, even though supposedly no one’s supposed to know. It’s Publius. Who can that be? People figured it out pretty quickly and sometimes the authors helped people along.

And there’s an anecdote about Hamilton — I went digging to see if I could find ultimate verification and I can’t find ultimate verification, but I’m going to offer it anyway because there is a supposed witness to the story, but people aren’t sure whether to believe the witness. At any rate, Hamilton — supposedly the day before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr — paid a call on a friend, a good eighteenth-century name, Egbert Benson. He went to visit Egbert Benson, who was a lawyer, and supposedly one of Benson’s law clerks answered the door, said that he would go find Benson, walked off to find Benson, and as he came back, he said he saw Hamilton in Benson’s library put something in a book and put the book up on the shelf. And the clerk said, ‘Mr. Benson’s not here,’ and Hamilton said, ‘Thank you,’ and left. So of course the guy is like: I wonder what that was? Right? So he goes over to the shelf and he pulls down the book. He wants to see what it is.

And supposedly what it was is a piece of paper in Hamilton’s handwriting in which he’d written all of the Federalistessays that were his. So supposedly, the night before the duel when he’s like: ‘got my checklist of things I’d better do in case I die tomorrow: number one, get credit for Federalist essays[laughter/laughs] Now it’s unclear whether that actually happened or didn’t happen. The guy — The fellow who saw it in later years said he did see it, and said he saw the piece of paper, and said the piece of paper at some point was given to the New York Public Library, but then nobody quite knows where it is in the New York Public Library. So it’s unclear whether it really happened. People — Some people at the time insisted it really did.

Whether or not it really did, the fact is that actually the people who wrote it did care about it and did care about which ones they wrote, and we don’t entirely know who wrote which in some cases. We know some are Hamilton essays and some are Madison essays, and then there are some where it’s blurrier and historians argue — give one guy credit or the other guy credit over who — And I think that’s partly — well, partly because they were rushing, but also partly because in some cases they probably were working together on some or sharing things.

The humbling thing to remember when you read the Federalist this week — and this actually should really mean something to any student — is that many of them are first drafts. Okay. Those are rough drafts. That just makes me want to cry as a writer. It’s like oh, [laughs] why can’t my rough drafts look like that? These guys were writing for newspapers, so they were in a hurry, sometimes literally dashing something off and getting it to the newspaper immediately. So they’re writing these in a hurry. They don’t have time for a lot of revision. That to me is an amazingly humbling thought.

All told, there were eighty-five Federalist essaysAs I said, they’re published in New York newspapers. The thought is they’re going to sway the New York ratification debate, and they appear between October 1787 and May of 1788. And then later, in June of 1788, they get put out in book form. And then obviously they migrate wherever they migrate to. Lots of other people read the Federalist.

Now, as suggested by its title, the Federalist — while it did demonstrate a lot of things about the new Constitution — it did have one overriding argument, and that was: the benefits of federalism. Right? Not nationalism — and they’re sure to stress that throughout all of the essays; we’re not talking about nationalism. Federal — federal — states are still important — the subtext of the calming component of the Federalist essaysA federal government would energize the government without prostrating the states or trampling on the American people; that’s the compromise of federalism.

And, as I mentioned at some point earlier, in an earlier lecture, to demonstrate just how badly this government needed to be energized, the Federalist essays show again and again the disaster that would reign if the Articles of Confederation were allowed to continue. And at some point, I did talk about the sort of ax job that the Federalist essays do on the Articles of Confederation. They really want to, because they have to prove that the Articles are so bad that of course this new Constitution is the perfect thing. It makes sense. You have to move in this direction.

Chapter 5. The Anti-Federalists’ Push for Bill of Rights [00:28:54]

So in New York and elsewhere, the ratification debates wore on, states proceeding at different paces. But there is one thing that emerged from these debates on the part of the Anti-Federalists, and this actually is a specific suggestion on their part, a specific idea about something that has to be there. Basically, throughout the states one thing that Anti-Federalists consistently demanded was some kind of guarantee of personal liberties, some kind of a declaration of rights like those that existed in many state constitutions — something that would protect personal liberties in the same document that seemed to be investing this new government with so much power. So in essence, the Anti-Federalists want a bill of rights.

Now from our vantage point, a bill of rights just seems like an unquestionably good thing. Right? We love our Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is good. Why would the Federalists not want a bill of rights? But the problem is, some Federalists did have problems with this idea of a bill of rights. For one thing, they claimed that the entire Constitution, by providing a well-framed government that had checks and balances and government by election, in a sense you could argue that that document was so framed and the government was so checked and balanced that it was in and of itself a sort of bill of rights; it was a controlled government.

They also said, the federal government has enumerated powers in this document. So in other words, a power that is not given to the government is not owned by the government. Why do we need a bill of rights saying well, we need to protect power of the press? We haven’t given power of the press to the national government, so why do we need suddenly to mention it in a bill of rights? Some Federalists even argued that if we start to write things down — put rights into writing — we might actually imply something bad; we might actually imply — If we try to define the freedom of press, freedom of religion and put it into words, maybe the implication will be that in some way or another the national government actually does have some power over those things. Maybe once we get into the sea of rights, we might lead people to be able to conclude things about that government down the road that we might not want them to conclude.

But the Anti-Federalists had a pretty powerful argument in favor of a bill of rights. It was a multileveled argument, but one part of it was particularly hard to argue with, and that is: any republican government, any small “r” republican government, ought to do everything that it could do to keep its citizens aware of their rights, including something like listing them as amendments to the Constitution. In other words, the Anti-Federalists say, ‘Well, in a republic, the people need to know their rights. They need to have them in writing. So of course we should have a bill of rights so that the American public knows what their rights are.’

In the end, it was only with the promise that a list of rights would be amended and added to the Constitution that it was ultimately ratified. And so one by one, the states debated, and then over time decided to ratify the Constitution. I think again, as with so many things about this period and the Constitution debate, we don’t tend to think of it as a real fight or debate or controversy. We sort of see things churning along and we imagine: ratification of the Constitution equals a bunch of guys in a room signing pieces of paper like: ah, it’s ratified, the end, now let’s have a government.’ But in fact, people were really anxiously watching this — and curious. And are states going to ratify? How many will ratify? Is this going to happen? Won’t it happen? What happens if only half of them ratify? This is something that people all over the United States were watching and wondering what was going to happen.

Here Ezra Stiles helps us out one more time because he put in his diary every time he heard that a state had ratified the Constitution. So in the midst of everything else in his diary, you’ll see — like, on January 9, 1788, he writes that a courier raced from Hartford to New Haven and made the entire trip in a mere hour and six minutes, which — Actually, since it takes — what? — like 45 minutes by car to go to Hartford, an hour and six minutes is pretty good for a horse I think, [laughter] so that guy really raced to announce to New Haven that Connecticut had ratified the Constitution. Right? He puts that down and he clearly was impressed with the speed of the rider.

On February 11, New Haven gets the news that Massachusetts ratified. Stiles puts this in his diary and he adds: Bells were rung throughout the city and cannon were discharged” So now clearly, Connecticut has signed on; they’re watching to see who else is signing on and when someone else does sign on, there’s a celebration. At the end of June, Stiles noted that at about 1:30 in the afternoon — and I love when they note the precise time, because then you know it’s something they believed to be significant. At 1:30 this afternoon, New Haven received the news that New Hampshire had ratified — and that — New Hampshire is the ninth state. So what that means is that now the Constitution could go into effect. And as Stiles described it, “As soon as the News arrived the four Bells in the City were set a Ringing, & the foederal Flag displayed and foederal Discharges of Canon.” What is actually a federal discharge of cannon? I don’t know what a federal — I never — I typed that out without stopping to think what a federal discharge of cannon is. But there was a federal discharge of cannon “— & Rejoycing” — [laughs] general rejoicing in New Haven — like: ‘yay, the Constitution has kicked in; thank you, New Hampshire.’

Meanwhile, throughout this period, Stiles still had Yale College seniors debating constitutional issues. [laughs] If you were not interested in politics at this point at Yale College, you were in deep trouble. He had them debate: “Whether it had been better to refer the new Constitution to the Ratificn by Town Meetings or a Plurality of the personal Votes of all the Freemen of the United States?” Now that’s kind of interesting, actually. That’s kind of a radical thing for him to ask the students to debate. Or whether the President of Congress — the President of Congress? — “the President … ought to be visited with an independt Power of Commandg the American Army?”

If you’re curious about what other things Stiles has people debating in addition to random constitutional issues, I just have a little sampling here to give you a sense of what it would have been like to be a senior at Yale College in 1788 and 1789. They debated: “Whether the Breakg up of the Roman Empire by the Goths & Vandals was prejudicial to the Progress of Literature?” [laughter] Can you imagine doing that one day and then the next day: and now [laughs] let’s talk about the President. They debated: “Whether the Scriptures are divinely inspired?”; “Whether good Policy is ever inconsistent with Justice?”; and “Whether all mankd descended from Adam?” Okay. That’s a wide-ranging bunch of things they’re debating. I love the fact that Stiles always puts that in his diary, so it’s actually fascinating just to read through and see what students were set to discuss at a given time.

Chapter 6. General Consensus on Experimenting with Republican Government and Conclusion [00:36:05]

Okay. So we’ve seen a national debate over a new Constitution. We’ve seen a debate taking place between people who by no means had an absolute consensus about what kind of government should be put into place. Given that this was a national debate, what does it show us about the state of the nation at the time? What does it really suggest about the new nation and its principles? Well, certainly for one thing, underneath all of the disagreement and the wrangling and the arguing, there was some consensus. So certainly, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that a small “r” republican government was the general aim and goal — a government based on popular sovereignty, on the will of the people — a government that placed the ultimate power in the hands of the people. So that’s a general consensus. I’m going to talk in a moment about what that means, but certainly in a general way people could agree on that.

Americans also could generally agree that this was an experiment in government; that it was something unique; that they were experimenting in the possibility of having people sit down and deliberately create a just government grounded on the rights and will of the populace. And to communicate this, to get this across, I’m going to read something. I don’t think I’ve read this before. Have I — I don’t think I’ve read the first paragraph or the first couple sentences from the firstFederalist essay. I went digging back into other lectures and I don’t think I’ve done it yet, and if I have you’re going to have to listen to it twice, but I don’t think I have. And I tend to read these couple sentences in a lot of my classes because I think they really capture this idea about experimentation that’s looming over what they’re doing at the time, this sense that they really are deciding something major, not just in the Constitution that they’re creating but also in the process by which they’re creating it — that the fact that they’re deliberating, debating, and then creating, and then stepping back to allow it to go into effect, that also is something that they see as major.

So this is from within the first paragraph of Federalist No. 1 by Hamilton:

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, 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. … [T]he crisis, at which we are arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the aera in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, … deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”

Okay. “Boom.” That’s a big statement. He is literally saying: the United States is deciding for all time if you can sit and deliberate and create a just government — or not, and if we do something stupid, the answer would appear to be not — for all time. So this experiment is not just an experiment, but it’s one that to people at the time actually means something. They feel that they’re proving something in this experiment that they’re undertaking. It has real consequences.

Now that said, of course even with the ratification of the Constitution, all kinds of questions are still looming about exactly how this experiment was going to play out, or indeed if it would survive at all. And wrapped up in this question about what’s going to happen with the government is a deeper question about whether the promise of the Revolution is actually going to be fulfilled. The Revolution has all of this promise attached to it. There’s all of this debate about how to bring that kind of promise to life. Here is one try. It’s a constitution. We’re going to put it into effect.

And people now have to step back and see if it’s going to work — and many, many people are absolutely not convinced that it’s going to fulfill all that promise that was unleashed by the Revolution. It’s one thing to assign power in a document, and it’s another thing to really bring that document to life. If you think about our Constitution, it’s a pretty short document; it’s pretty brief. It’s a framework. It doesn’t go into lots of detail. So there’s a lot of things that had to be fleshed out and worked out once that government went into effect.

And in Thursday’s lecture, I’m going to touch on some of that. I’m going to talk a little bit about how this begins to play out in the 1790s and what that suggests about the legacy of the Revolution overall. I will stop there. I will see you on Thursday, our last class.

[end of transcript]

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