John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The Founders' dilemmas
Can’t? I’m not surprised. But if you were inclined to enlarge your understanding, you could do worse than to turn to Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 514 pages, $30). Professor Beeman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, has produced a highly readable, thoughtful account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
It is an account that may trouble contemporary liberals and conservatives alike.
Liberals, because the Founders as a group thought that we ought to be governed by educated white male property owners. They were not democratically minded; indeed, they were highly suspicious of the public. The tension that troubled them throughout their deliberations that summer rose from the attitude of the “archetypal old republican — intensely fearful of concentration of power in the hands of just a few but at the same time convinced that ordinary citizens lacked either the intelligence or the virtue to govern themselves.” Thus, for example, they repeated voted down proposals to have the president elected directly by the people and constructed the creaky machinery of the Electoral College.
Conservatives, because Professor Beeman’s account offers no comfort to the legal Originalists who argue that our understanding of the Constitution should be limited to the intentions of those fifty-five men in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, they were unable to come to a common understanding at the time of the convention about some of the basic language of the document, and some delegates strongly attacked its provisions during the debates on ratification. Moreover, James Madison, revered as “Father of the Constitution,” went to Philadelphia advocating a stronger central government and subsequently opposed many of the consequences. Which Madisonian “intent” should prevail?
What is impressive in Professor Beeman’s book is how earnestly these fifty-five men addressed themselves to the issues of self-government, how they struggled amid the summer heat in confined quarters to rise above narrow interests, how they gradually moved to an understanding of separation of powers and checks and balances, how they framed a document with enough flexibility to endure for more than two centuries with comparatively few amendments, and how they provided better than they knew for an expansion of liberty and political autonomy.
The tragic element is their fatal compromise on slavery. It was in part a purely political measure; the delegates had every reason to expect that without some protection of slavery, South Carolina and Georgia would not come into the Union. But in larger part it was a failure of imagination: Even those delegates who saw slavery as a great evil could not comprehend how to untangle the economics of it or conceive how white and black Americans could live together in freedom and equality.
It is refreshing, in a time when ignorant and ahistorical people say that we should disregard Washington and Jefferson and Madison because they were slaveholders, to see Professor Beeman explore how these well-meaning men were limited by the culture and perspective of their times. It might help us to develop a little humility to consider the ways in which we, too, grapple ineffectively with our gravest problems because of our failure to see beyond our cultural blinkers.