The Revolution of 1787 Part 1

While I was stationed at Clark Air Base, Philippines, I was involved in a joint U.S./Filipino exercise known as Balikatan. We convoyed from Clark to Manila and began setting up our equipment on the first day. At the end of the day we went to a local hotel where we were to be quartered for the duration of the exercise; (no tents for us flyboys). The next morning we awoke to go begin day two of the exercise only to be told we could not leave the hotel due to the fact that an armed coup, led by forces loyal to former President Ferdinand Marcos, was underway to topple the Aquino government. For three days we sat atop the roof of the hotel, sipping Jim Beam and watching the armed rebels fight the Filipino military in the streets below us.

While most have never witnessed anything like that, I imagine that’s the image that comes to most people’s minds when one mentions the word revolution; armed insurgents trying to forcefully topple the existing government. I don’t blame people for thinking that, because for the longest time that’s how I envisioned all revolutions as well.

The thing is, revolutions are not always violent. One of the definitions for revolution found in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary is: a fundamental change in political organization. It says nothing about armed conflict between those seeking to implement change and those who wish to maintain the status quo; only that a fundamental change in the political organization takes place.

Now if I were to ask you how many revolutions America has had, what would be your answer? I’m guessing the most people would probably say one or two; the American Revolution that lasted from 1776-1783 and the Civil War that lasted from 1860-1865. Sorry, but if this were the final round of Jeopardy you would go home penniless, as you’re answer is wrong.

America’s war for independence was a revolution in the purest sense of the word in that it was an armed conflict between those who sought to bring about a fundamental change in their political system, and those who sought to maintain their control over the Colonies. The Civil War was also a revolution, but not in the way that you might think – but I’ll have to postpone talking about that until a bit later; after I have established a bit of background.

There was another revolution that took place in America, one that most people probably never considered a revolution; yet it fit the criteria as it brought about a fundamental change in the political system of this country. This revolution took place between the years 1787-1789, during the period that saw the Articles of Confederation replaced by the Constitution.

To understand why I say a fundamental change occurred during this period one must understand how things were in America prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Prior to becoming States, each Colony was distinct and separate from the others; each had their own customs, their own internal governments, and most of the time, religious beliefs. Yet each and every one of them had one thing in common, they were all subject to the jurisdiction Great Britain.

When they declared their independence from Great Britain they united together for that common cause, yet they retained their individuality and sovereignty throughout the conflict. The Articles of Confederation were written during this period; establishing a centralized system of government primarily to manage the war effort. When the American Revolution ended, that system became America’s first system of government.

I hate having to spend a great deal of time defining words, but for you to have a complete understanding of how things were, and how they changed, we must examine the meaning of words like union, federation and confederation.

Going back to Merriam Webster’s, a union is defined as: an act or instance of uniting or joining two or more things into one. A federation is very similar in that it is: an encompassing political or societal entity formed by uniting smaller or more localized entities. Finally, a confederation is defined as: an organization which consists of a number of parties or groups united in an alliance or league.

The primary difference between unions and federations versus confederations is that in the first two the joining together does not always have to be voluntary, it can be forced upon them. Such was the case prior to World War II when Hitler unified Germany under Nazi control, doing away with the Weimer Republic and establishing a totalitarian state controlled by a single party; the National Socialists, or Nazis.

I know I have probably bored some of you to death with my endless ranting about sovereignty, but it is crucial that you understand what it is, and who holds it in the unions, federations and confederations. Sovereignty is defined as the supreme, or absolute, political power in a country.
In a union, or federation, the sovereignty is held by the central government, with the member states being subordinate to its authority. In a confederation, however, the sovereignty rests with the member states, with the central government being accountable to them.

Therefore, prior to the Constitution each State was sovereign and independent, with all of them forming a voluntary alliance to serve certain specific functions. All the power of internal governing was held by the States, and the Congress established by the Articles of Confederation could not do anything of its own accord; suggestions were given to it by the member states which were then debated by the Congress until a final proposal was agreed upon, which was then sent to all the State Legislatures for their consideration. For anything to become binding upon the entire Confederation required a unanimous vote of approval from the Legislatures of each and every State; a single no vote could halt the passage of a measure.

Now you might say, “Damn Neal, that kind of system makes the central government weak and ineffective.” You’re right, it does; but that was the whole idea; to prevent the central government from becoming too powerful, while keeping the real political power close to the people whom it was to represent. Our first system of government, the Confederation, was designed so that the States would be the ones who both knew the local interests of their people and were the ones who decided which laws were in their best interests. For cryin’ out loud, they had just fought a war to free themselves from a strong centralized government, why would they want to establish one that had the same features and characteristics?

Numerous opponents to the proposed Constitution wrote about this very issue in their arguments against it, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just include a short passage from Samuel Byran’s first essay under the pseudonym of Centinel, “It is the opinion of the greatest writers, that a very extensive country cannot be governed on democratical principles, on any other plan, than a confederation of a number of small republics, possessing all the powers of internal government, but united in the management of their foreign and general concerns.

It would not be difficult to prove, that any thing short of despotism, could not bind so great a country under one government; and that whatever plan you might, at the first setting out, establish, it would issue in a despotism.”

Anyway, that was the status quo in the years immediately following America’s independence, and therefore, any fundamental change, or revolution, would have to radically alter that. Therefore, we are left with two parallel thoughts; first how could anyone go about enacting such a radical change, and secondly, what kind of changes would take place during this transformation.

You see there was a huge hurdle those who might want to fundamentally change the political system in America faced; the Articles of Confederation themselves. Article 13 of that document laid out the manner in which they could be amended or altered just as Article 5 of the Constitution lays out the manner in which it could be amended. Article 13 of the AOC states, “…nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”

What that means is that for any changes to occur it must be met with the approval of both the Congress established by the AOC, and by the Legislatures of each and every State; a daunting hurdle for those who might want to increase the power of government or usurp the powers held by the States.

Unfortunately, fear is a powerful tool by which artful and designing men may take advantage of a situation and do things that are not in the best interests of the whole of society. Therefore, the fact that the Congress under the AOC was having problems collecting the taxes it requested from the States, the problem it had in regulating trade between the States, and the fact that Shay’s Rebellion had just taken place, caused many in this country to accede to the idea that changes needed to be made to the Articles of Confederation.

The first attempt came in 1786 when delegates from 5 States gathered in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss the means of altering, or strengthening the Articles of Confederation. Five States alone was not a quorum, so they could not come to any real agreement that could be sent to the Congress and the States, but they did agree to a couple of things that are important.

First they agreed to try again the following Spring, in a convention to be held in the city of Philadelphia. The thing is, these men were acting as agents of their State Legislatures, and they had no authority to call for another convention; such a request would have to be submitted by either the Congress, and agreed to by the States, or submitted by one of the individual States and then submitted to each State, which would then either agree or disagree to the proposal.

And secondly, and more importantly, something they agreed upon in Annapolis gives us a peek into things to come. In the notes of their proceedings they state, “…your Commissioners submit an opinion, that the Idea of extending the powers of their Deputies, to other objects, than those of Commerce, which has been adopted by the State of New Jersey, was an improvement on the original plan, and will deserve to be incorporated into that of a future Convention…”

That implies that those who did attend the Annapolis Convention felt that the limits placed upon their authority were restrictive upon them, that they should be given wider latitude in their ability to make changes in the existing system so as to make it stronger. Unfortunately for the States, and the people, their true intentions were not revealed until too late. Yet we have a glimpse into them in a letter James Madison sent to George Washington in April of 1787, “Having been lately led to revolve the subject which is to undergo the discussion of the Convention, and formed in my mind some outlines of a new system, I take the liberty of submitting them without apology, to your eye.” (My emphasis)

So from the get go James Madison was already scheming to topple the existing form of government and replace it with one of his own creation. Is it just me, or does that come close to being borderline treasonous? After all, once he got his Philadelphia Convention, the first order of business was to seal themselves off from the world and take oaths of secrecy to not discuss their proceedings with their State Legislatures until they had accomplished their goals. That sounds a lot, and I mean A LOT like a conspiracy to take over the country by toppling its existing government and replace it with one they had created; which is the very definition of a revolution.

The major stumbling block in their plan was the States; for they would be unlikely to agree to any plan that reduced them to subordinate members of any union, or reduce their ability to manage the internal affairs of their States. George Read of Delaware went so far as to say, “Too much attachment is betrayed to the State Governts. We must look beyond their continuance. A national Govt. must soon of necessity swallow all of them up.” Yet thoughts like that, if included in any plan they presented, would doom it to immediate failure. But, the convention was populated by a large number of lawyers, who knew how to word things in such a way as to leave loopholes, or openings, for the future expansion of powers by the system of government they were establishing.

There were many prominent and key men who were missing from this convention; men who had they attended may have fought fervently to alter, or halt the progress being made to subvert and overthrow the government established by the Articles of Confederation. In his essays against the Constitution, Melancton Smith writes, “Here the favourite moment for changing the government was evidently discerned by a few men, who seized it with address. Ten other states appointed, and tho’ they chose men principally connected with commerce and the judicial department yet they appointed many good republican characters — had they all attended we should now see, I am persuaded a better system presented. The non-attendance of eight or nine men, who were appointed members of the convention, I shall ever consider as a very unfortunate event to the United States.”

Patrick Henry refused to attend the Constitution, for he saw it for what it was, an attempt to subvert the States and place them under the subjugation of a strong centralized form of government; his comment being that he ‘smelled a rat in Philadelphia.’

In order to keep this as short as I possibly can I will refrain from going into the arguments and proposals made during the Philadelphia Convention; but it would behoove each of you to seek out Madison’s notes from those proceedings and read them for yourselves. I guarantee you, you’ll come away with an entirely new outlook on those who drafted our Constitution.

The important point is that, after months of debating the form it would take, the delegates to this convention of conspirators did present a finalized plan for an entirely new system of government. The problem was, they had exceeded their authority; and they knew it. They had been sent by their States under the premise that they would come up with proposals for amending the Articles of Confederation, not throwing them by the wayside to be replaced by an entirely new plan of government.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in Congress in 1787 when their final plan was first unveiled to the Congress. It would have been eye opening to see how they reacted when they discovered that those they had sent to make their government stronger, more capable, had chosen instead to abolish it and replace it with one of their own creation.

At this point in my learning curve I honestly cannot say why the Congress agreed to send the plan off to the States for their consideration, all I know is that in so doing they themselves violated Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation; for they neither supported or opposed the plan – they simply sent it off to the people to consider for themselves; which was the 2nd violation of Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation; for any alterations to them were required to be agreed upon by a unanimous vote of the State Legislatures. Instead, they sent it to the people; shutting the States out of the process of deciding whether or not to adopt this new system of government.

But that was the plan all along, make this a government of the people by the people rather than a government of the States for the States. They knew that the people were more often than not ruled by fear and passion than by reason, and they counted on that fear for the ratification of their proposed plan. Samuel Bryan wrote about that as well, saying, “The wealthy and ambitious, who in every community think they have a right to lord it over their fellow creatures, have availed themselves, very successfully, of this favorable disposition; for the people thus unsettled in their sentiments, have been prepared to accede to any extreme of government… and thence they have been led to expect full relief from the adoption of the proposed system of government, and in the other event, immediately ruin and annihilation as a nation.”

But fear is a powerful motivator; just look at how many infringements upon our liberties we have acquiesced to in modern times just because we fear things like terrorism, crime, and all the other things our government tells us will happen if these laws they write aren’t enacted.

I think now would be a good time to take a break and allow you to consider all that I have said so far. When I come back I’ll begin discussing how this new system fundamentally changed things i America forever. So, until then, pleasant reading…

About Br'er Rabbit

I'm just one person out of millions of others. The only thing different about me is that I don't walk around with my head up my ass.
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