A little rebellion now and then

Let’s say I’m wrong. Hey, it happens. I’ve been wrong several times in my life, and maybe I’m wrong about my interpretation of Article I, Section 8, Clause 17. Maybe the Founders really DID mean for 640,000 people, more than any other state save Virginia at the time, to be micromanaged by Congress. Maybe the status quo is EXACTLY what those gentlemen in Philadelphia envisioned.

So what?

Do we really have to be bound by their intent?

The men --and yes, obviously, they were exclusively white men-- struggled in good faith to create a system that would put the new nation on a permanent footing and bring stability to a post-Revolution America. They succeeded: spectacularly so.

Unfortunately, in their success, the Founding Fathers were raised to demigod status, where questioning the document they created, much less admitting that it doesn’t fit every aspect of the needs of a modern society, became heresy. We’ve transformed government from the application of new leadership to divining the will and intent of past leaders.

You know who would find this monumentally sad? The Founding Fathers themselves. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was particularly vocal about the need to shake things up a bit. In a oft-quoted letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson contrasts the stability of a monarchy with the perceived instability of a republic. Even though he felt republics were inclined to revolution, he wasn’t too worried about it:

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

These men were products of the Enlightenment, unafraid to look anew at governance. For most of them, this was the second time in as many decades they had consciously decided to entirely abandon the status quo and come up with a new plan. Of course, the Revolution --where we told good King George to stuff it because of taxes and such-- gets all the attention, but keep in mind that our hallowed Constitution came much after we dumped the tea in Boston harbor.

It was comparatively easy to say we no longer be part of England; the hard part was deciding how we wanted to organize ourselves. Our first attempt was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Today we seem to approach the Articles as some sort of interim government, a bridge between the rule of the Crown and the Constitution but it was meant to be the permanent government of the new country. And per its own terms, alterations of this “Perpetual Union” could only come about by agreement from Congress that would be “afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”

Yet somehow the new Constitution went into effect upon the ratification of nine of the original states and NOT when confirmed by every state. Historians and law professors construct vast justifications for this patently extra-legal creation of our originating document, but basically, it doesn’t matter because...it doesn’t matter. We, as a nation, AGREE that the Constitution is our supreme law, and THAT, the consent of the governed, gives it its continuing legitimacy. Not the cold dead hands of thirty nine men in Philadelphia two centuries ago, or even the subsequent ratification by the various states, but the shared belief of 300 million living Americans today that this is the way we want to structure our government.

So yes, for reasons that made sense to them, a handful of people living in the days when slavery was acceptable and women voting was not, set up a Federal enclave. This enclave had, in 1800, roughly the same number of people as the US Capitol Police has total officers in its force today. Why are we bound to it? Our Founding Fathers, whose views we seem to hold sacrosanct, weren’t in the least afraid of pragmatic solutions to problems or reviewing unworkable systems. I think they’d be disappointed in us if we are.

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