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What would transpire in Philadelphia between the spring and fall of 1787 was the construction of the most successful frame of government ever devised in the history of man in terms of ensuring the liberty of the people and perpetuating their prosperity. America’s written constitution is the oldest still in use, now covering 50 states instead of the original 13, and 250 million people instead of approximately 3.5 million in 1787.
A good definition of what we mean by constitution is "the rules and procedures under which government must operate." The purpose of a constitution is to prevent government from engaging in arbitrary and capricious behavior; to limit as much as possible human discretion; to ensure that the operations of government are uniform and fair; and to take measures that limit the natural urge of those in government to grasp power at the expense of the people the government was set up to protect. The reason the U.S. Constitution is considered so successful is that, to a greater degree than any other governing structure devised previously or since, America’s government accomplished these aims.
These men were able to construct such a government because they agreed on the purpose of government. Everyone agreed that any legitimate government must have the consent of the people; but that individuals must be protected by law from the tyranny of the majority. Most importantly, everyone agreed that people by nature are selfish. And because government, of necessity, must be run by men, institutions must be designed to prevent the people in government from using the power at their disposal to benefit themselves at the expense of the country. The role of the central government must therefore be limited, an aim that is stated well in the preamble of the Constitution:
"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Now the term "welfare" in this context had nothing to do with income redistribution or the modern welfare state, the taking from person A and giving to person B. Promotion of the "general welfare" to the founding fathers meant taking necessary measures to promote the good of the whole, such as protecting the environment and building roads, which benefit everyone. Modern liberals have hijacked the term "welfare" and distorted its original meaning in order to advance egalitarian economic redistribution, an idea that could not have been farther from the thoughts of America’s founding fathers, who in fact took extraordinary measures to make sure that private property was protected and that people could enjoy the fruits of their labor.
The framers agreed emphatically with John Locke, who said, "The great chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property." Most states required that voters own 50 acres of land. It was generally believed that property owners were the most responsible citizens, and would be less likely to vote for radical, leveling measures.
"Property," said Samuel Adams, "is admitted to have an existence even in the savage state of nature. . and if property is necessary for the support of savage life, it is by no means less so in civil society. The utopian schemes of leveling, and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable as those which vest all property in the Crown are arbitrary, despotic, and in our government, unconstitutional."
"Government is instituted to protect property of every sort," said James Madison in 1792, a conviction many framers received directly from the Bible, as John Adams noted. "Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty," wrote Adams. "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God and there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If THOU SHALT NOT COVET, and THOU SHALT NOT STEAL, were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts of every society before it can be made civilized or made free." A crucial tenet of political philosophy surrounding the creation of the American Republic, in other words, was the right to enjoy the rewards of one’s own exertions; private ownership of property was considered a God-given right, inalienable and eternal. Any government that violated this right, in the view of the founding fathers, was tyrannical, despotic, evil, and therefore illegitimate. Revolt against such a regime would be justified.
The great problem of government has always been that man, with his fallen nature, must run it, and that too many men seek office in order to use the powers of the state to further their own ambitions. This appeared to be happening in the local and state governments, which were more interested in their own interests than the good of the union, under the Articles of Con federation, which is one reason the Philadelphia convention was called. "We have probably," wrote Washington, "had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation." "Take mankind in general," said Hamilton, "they are vicious."
A central assumption of America’s founders was original sin, meaning the corruption of man’s character. Self-interest, they saw, was one of the most powerful of all human motives. If properly channeled, the desire to improve one’s condition can lead to tremendous accomplishments and lift the entire community. But government, because it is in the hands of men, has the same motive. It addresses its own aims first, which usually is the accumulation of wealth and power for itself. Moreover, government, by its nature, has no qualms about sacrificing the interests of the weak and isolated individual for its own aggrandizement.
In the minds of the framers, politics was nothing more than the perpetual struggle between the passions of those in power and the rights of the people. As Thomas Gordon put it in Cato’s Letters an influential work of the period, "Whatever is good for the people is bad for the governors." The nature of power, wrote one 18th-century American poet, is that "if at first it meets with no control [it] creeps by degrees and quickly subdues the whole."
Until the founding of the United States, power had always emerged victorious over freedom. Individual liberty directly challenges the domain of authority. It is, therefore, not in government’s interest to permit freedom to flourish. Moreover, restricting choice is what government is supposed to do. Government acts as umpire, regulator, jailer, war-maker, and, sometimes, executioner. Its function is to force people to do things for which they would not otherwise volunteer, such as pay taxes, or stand in front of a firing squad. The trick is to prevent government from compelling people to do these things illegitimately. Virtually all 18th-century Americans believed that individuals have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the protection of property, and that it is government’s responsibility to protect these rights. But it is the very essence of government to take away all three. More importantly, it is in government’s interest to do so.
Thus, government, because it is the sole agent in society legally entrusted to wield force, is extremely dangerous to liberty. The dilemma faced by the political scientist, therefore, is as follows. a) power is the enemy of liberty; b) but power, as wielded by a human authority, is required to preserve freedom from attacks by society’s malefactors: mainly criminals and foreign aggressors. Hence, government is a necessary evil. That government is an evil, however, the framers of the U.S. Constitution never doubted. It is one of the prices we pay for sin. How to limit this necessary evil called government, while maintaining its legitimate authority, is the problem. James Madison, the great political architect, stated in Federalist 51 that in the structure of government "ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government but the greatest of all reflections of human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls on government would be necessary."
The framers, in other words, had a Christian under standing of human nature. More accurately, they had a Puritan understanding. No people were more conscious than the Puritans and their descendants of the unalterable reality of man’s continuous disobedience to God: "There is no reason to believe the one much honester than the other," wrote John Adams. "They are all of the same clay; their minds and bodies are alike. . . as to usurping others’ rights, they are all . . . equally guilty when unlimited in power . . . The people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous, and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrolled power. The majority has eternally, without one exception, usurped the rights of the minority." Even democracy, in other words, will not of itself mitigate the problem of sin. For this is a fallen world, and nothing that could be accomplished at Philadelphia would change this truth. As John Adams wrote: "Cold will still freeze, the fire will never cease to burn; disease and vice will continue to disorder and death to terrify mankind."
Whatever they accomplished at Philadelphia, the framers recognized that it would not be a panacea. They had no utopian aspirations, no illusions that they were creating heaven on earth. Salvation, they believed, lay on the other side of the grave. Human nature would be changed there, not here. Other revolutions, such as the French and the Russian, attempted to create a new man, believing that corruptions in man’s nature were created by corrupt institutions. Clear away the institutions, the French and the Marxists believed, and man’s natural virtue would shine. How wrong they were, and how right America’s founders were to seek very limited objectives with their revolution. The American political architects had no illusions that their government would be virtuous. They had no aspirations to purge evil from man’s heart, because they knew this to be impossible. The major reason the U.S. Constitution has been so successful is that the aims of the framers were so modest. They sought merely to mitigate the evils that flow from bad govern ment by checking its natural proclivity to plunder wealth and usurp the rights of the people it was established to protect.
The history of constitution-making in America can best be summed up as a litany of "thou shalt nots." Government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion and expression; government shall not take away people’s gnns; government shall not arbitrarily seize property; government shall not enter people’s homes without just cause; government shall not deny the ac cused a trial without a jury of his peers. In fact, about all that government is permitted to do, according to the traditional American view of a just social order, is to defend the nation against external and internal threats to the lives, liberties, and property of law-abiding people. The major reason the convention in Philadelphia went so smoothly was that everyone had this understanding of government’s very limited role. The debate, then, centered on exactly how to best arrange the institutions of government so that it could carry out these basic functions without threatening the God-given rights of individuals.
The Governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, a convention delegate, was the first to propose formally that the Articles of Confederation be scrapped altogether and that a new plan for a union be instituted. Randolph put forward what became known as the Virginia Plan, which was largely the work of James Madison. The new scheme involved adding executive and judiciary branches to the already existing Congress and then dividing Congress into two legislative bodies. The lower branch would be elected by a popular vote, the upper branch chosen by the lower House from nominees of the state legislatures. The latter provision was changed in committee to have the upper House of Congress selected by the state legislatures on the grounds that it would be unwise to give the lower House so much power over the composition of the Senate. Representation in both houses of Congress would be apportioned according to the population -and thus was a change from the Articles of Confederation in which each state had an equal vote. The Virginia Plan was also known as the Large States Plan, because it shifted the balance of power dramatically toward the large states.
The small states, however, objected. William Patterson of New Jersey presented a proposal-the New Jersey Plan-to keep the basic unicameral structure of the Continental Congress, and to add a judiciary and an executive (with no power to veto) to conduct foreign policy with greater dispatch and singularity of purpose. Congress was clearly incapable of administering military and diplomatic actions with efficiency - as was proven during the Revolutionary War. It can be fairly said that America was able to win the war against Britain despite, not because of, the actions of the Continental Congress. George Washington often made unilateral decisions without consulting Congress; had he not done so, the American cause would have been lost very early. We have seen in our own day the problems that can occur when members of Congress act as 535 Secretaries of State, traveling around the world negotiating with foreign powers, often sending signals that contradict the President’s policy. Virtually everyone agreed that an executive was needed to conduct foreign affairs, which is why they called him the Commander in Chief.
The Convention, however, was deadlocked-not over basic political philosophy, but over the structure of the federal power. All agreed that the Articles of Confederation was inadequate to the purposes of sound and stable government, and at the very least needed modification. Support for the new government by both large and small states was required if ever the new constitution was to become a reality. But the conflict between the large and small states over the issue of representation in the Congress seemed irreoncilable. The mood of the Convention became ugly, and the Convention was on the verge of breaking up. On June 28, Benjamin Franklin made his famous speech on the need for each day’s session to be opened with prayer. He believed that only God’s Spirit could enable the delegates to resolve their differences.
"In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger," said Franklin, "we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor . . . and have we now forgotten this powerful friend? Or do we no longer need His assistance?
"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: ‘that God governs the affairs of man.’ And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,1 is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
"We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.2 I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war or conquest.
"I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed with our business."
After some discussion, Franklin’s motion for prayer was rejected - but not because the delegates disagreed with his message. They did not want to present the public with the impression that the Convention was in desperate disarray. Moreover, they did not want to introduce a sectarian controversy over whether the chaplain saying the prayer would be Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Methodist, or from some other Protestant sect. In addition, there were no funds in the treasury with which to pay a chaplain. But Franklin’s words must have pierced some influential hearts, as local interests began to give way to the welfare of the whole, and disagreements that before seemed major appeared to dissolve into minor dif ferences. An atmosphere of reconciliation appeared to descend over the convention hall. Roger Sherman of Connecticut then introduced his momentous proposal, known as the Connecticut Compromise.
Sherman’s solution to the "large-state, small-state conflict" was actually rather simple. The small states would have an equal vote in the Senate. That is, each state would have two senators. But representation in the House of Representatives would be apportioned according to population. The House of Representatives would be close to the people, elected directly every two years. The Senate, however, would be more detached from the momentary urges of the electorate, serving terms of six years. They would also be more statesmen-like, as they would be selected, not by the people directly, but by their state legislatures, which were more capable of identifying leaders of distinction. Upon Franklin’s suggestion, the House, as part of the compromise, would have the authority to originate all money bills. The Senate would have the power to either accept or reject such money bills.
There would also be an executive, whose main function was to conduct foreign policy and execute the laws of the land. He would serve four-year terms and be the only public official elected by all the American people. In those days, the logistics of conducting a national election were uncertain, and so the Electoral College was instituted. In theory, the states would choose representatives, "electors," for the special purpose of electing a President. This particular feature never worked very well, in part because the framers never anticipated the rise of the two party system. Though, technically, the President is still chosen by the Electoral College, in practice he is elected by the people. The President was expected to report to Congress periodically on the state of the union. His role in the lawmaking process was mainly advisory. That is, he could recommend but not initiate legislation. He could, however, veto a bill, a veto which, in turn, could be overridden by a two-thirds vote in Congress. After a law was passed, it could then be subject to review by the Supreme Court. Only the Chief Justice is explicitly provided for in the Constitution. The number of associate justices appointed was left up to Congress.
The framers, quite clearly, wanted to make it very difficult for the central government to pass laws affecting domestic life. Domestic legislation was to be left chiefly to the states. The main responsibilities of the federal government were to be national defense, which is why such broad authority in this area was given to the Commander in Chief, and the area of commerce. But even in trade, the federal government’s main duty was a negative one: to knock down state laws that inhibited interstate economic activity such as tariffs, "stay laws," and laws that impair the obligation of contracts. The states would also be prohibited from issuing their own money. The federal government would have sole authority over the currency. In other words, the framers intended to create a stable commercial environment to permit the flowering of a laissez-faire capitalist system, unimpeded by either local or national government interference. "Thou shalt not covet" and "thou shalt not steal" were biblical principles that also applied to governments.
Perhaps the most important provision in the Constitution was the last one, requiring that only nine states approve the document. The Artides of Confederation stipulated unanimous approval on the part of the states for even an amendment to pass. Had ratification required all 13 states, there could have been no new government. After the details of the Constitution were worked out in committee, a final draft, penned largely by Gouverneur Morris of New York, was presented to the Convention.
Benjamin Franklin was amazed that a frame of government that came about from so many compromises could have been so good: "It will astonish our enemies who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best."
Still, the Constitution could only muster 39 signatures of 55 delegates when it was presented on September 17,1787. Many of the delegates had long since departed Philadelphia in disgust. Even revered heroes of the revolution such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee were among the opponents. Had not America fought a bloody war, almost a decade in duration, to free itself from the evils of central government? To many, this seemed a good point. In fact, if a Gallup Poll had been taken at that time, there is no doubt that the Constitution would have failed to pass. This new government "squints toward monarchy," remarked Hancock.
But the Federalists, those who favored the new government, were well organized. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton immediately launched a massive campaign to educate the nation on the virtues of the Constitution. Samuel Adams’ support was eventually won after he was assured that an amendment would be attached stating explicitly that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government would be reserved to the states. In Virginia and New York, however, the chances for ratification appeared remote. Without these two major states, the Constitution was a dead letter. Madison, Hamilton, and New York’s John Jay, wrote a series of 85 essays in defense of the Constitution that were published regularly in newspapers throughout the country under the name of Publiuis. Though designed principally to influence the contest over ratification in New York, these articles have since been collected and published in many languages. Commonly called The Federalist Papers, this collection is considered one of the seminal works of political philosophy. It convinced George Washington who, after reading it, said, "It is clear to my conception that no government before introduced among mankind ever contained so many checks and such efficacious restraints to prevent it from degenerating into any species of oppression."
The anti-Federalists had no such document and no uniform view as to what was wrong with the Constitution. For example, some Southerners opposed the Constitution on the grounds that it was hostile to the institution of slavery. George Mason, however, opposed it for the opposite reason - that its provision for the gradual phasing out of slavery provided too much protection for the abominable tradition, and thus made the new government a moral travesty.
The major apprehension, though, was caused by the absence of a bill of rights. Explicit enumeration of individual rights had been an important feature of free government since Magna Carta was signed in 1215, with the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the bills of rights attached to most state constitutions serving as more recent models. There was no guarantee of such basic rights as a free press, freedom of religion, trial by jury, and no explicit protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Alexander Hamilton, and other advocates of the Constitution, pointed out that a bill of rights was unnecessary, since the proposed federal government had no authority to do that which was not specifically authorized in the charter. To list specific rights, the Federalists believed, was dangerous because it would imply that rights not listed were not protected.
A number of states were persuaded. But it soon became clear that the necessary nine, including Virginia and New York, would not pass the Constitution until a bill of rights was promised. The ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified on June 21, 1788. Virginia joined the union on June 25 and New York followed on July 26. North Carolina and Rhode Island, the last hold-outs, were then faced with a choice. Either they could declare themselves independent republics, small, isolated, and of little consequence, such as the Latin American countries; or they could join the union. North Carolina joined on November 21, 1789. Rhode Island, a maverick colony since the days of Roger Williams, held out until May 29, 1790, when it became convinced that the benefits of union outweighed the threat to liberty. Even then, the vote for ratification in Rhode Island was only 34 in favor and 32 opposed. Passage of the U.S. Constitution was a remarkable achievement. A century later, the great British Prime Minister William Gladstone called it "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." George Washington concluded that "the event is the hand of God."
The most important man in this process was George Washington. He had resolved to take no active part in the debate, believing that it would have been improper for him to do so, given that he was chairman of the Convention. But his sober presence, his noble demeanor, and the fact that everyone knew that he would certainly be the nation’s first President were decisive factors in passage. A mere nod from Washington in favor of the new government was enough to convince most people. The sentiments expressed by Luther Martin from Maryland were representative: "The name of Washington is far above my praise! I would to Heaven that on this occasion one more wreath had been added to the number of those which are twined around his amiable brow - that those with which it is already surrounded may flourish with immortal verdure, not wither or fade till time shall be no more, is my fervent prayer!" "Be assured," wrote James Monroe in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, still in France, Washington’s "influence carried this government."
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In making his case for rebellion against British rule, John Dickinson, author of "The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms" (July 1775), stated that "those who are taxed without their own consent expressed by themselves or their representatives are slaves." So sensitive were Americans to an encroachment on their liberties that they drew the line against arbitrary British rule over the issue of a tax on tea. But did not the same principle apply to the black plantation worker? The greatest blight on the American achievement was without a doubt toleration of chattel slavery. It violated every principle of liberty and Christianity for which they had fought. The Bible commands: "Loosen the bonds of wickedness,... undo the bands of the yoke, and.. . let the oppressed go free" (Isaiah 58:6).
There was plenty of opposition to the trading of men on the auction block. James Otis, for example, in a famous statement, said that all men are "by the law of nature free born." "Does it follow that ‘tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as it is called by those whose hearts are hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?" Otis went on to call slavery "the most shocking violation of the law of nature," which "has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a petty tyrant." So corrupting was this heinous tradition, Otis concluded, that "those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own."
Among the most ardent opponents of slavery were ministers, particularly the Puritan and revivalist preachers. Throughout American history, from George Washington’s time to Martin Luther King’s, churches have played the dominant role in fighting for the civil liberties of under-represented people. Sometimes their efforts have been misdirected, but the Christian impulse in America has always been to reach out and include those who have been excluded from the protections and benefits of civil society. The Reverend Samuel Cooke argued in his Massachusetts election-day sermon in 1770 that, by tolerating this evil, "We, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name, and degraded human nature nearly to a level with the beasts that perish." The Baptist preacher John Allen was even more shrill, calling slavery a violation of God’s laws: "Blush ye pretended votaries for freedom! ye trifling Patriots! who are making a vain parade of being advocates for the liberties of mankind, who are thus making a mockery of your profession by trampling on the sacred natural rights and privileges of Africans."
In his pamphlet, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of Africans: Shewing It To Be the Duty and Interest of the American Colonies To Eniancipate All the African Slaves, the preacher and theologian Samuel Hopkins systematically destroyed all the argnments rationalizing slavery. Hopkins, a student of Jonathan Edwards, rejected as absurd the notion that slavery was useful for the purpose of bringing the Gospel to the Negroes, who have "never forfeited their liberty or given anyone the right to enslave and sell them." What sort of "gospel" message is being conveyed when people are enslaved because of the color of their skin? The Declaration of Independence says "all men are created equal [emphasis added]," and "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." "Oh, the shocking, the intolerable inconsistence!" said Hopkins.
By the time of the American Revolution, Americans were well aware that toleration of slavery undermined their own struggle for freedom. But recognizing an evil is a far easier task than abolishing it, because once we permit a corruption to enter the social fabric, its tendency is to prey on human weakness, and to fester and grow. Indeed, this is a pretty good description of how sin operates on the human heart.
Slavery in colonial Virginia seemed as natural as the setting sun. The entire tobacco economy revolved around it, and most Virginians by revolutionary times knew no other life. The Bible tells us that to persist in a sin will inevitably harden the human heart to that particular sin. Often we then attempt to rationalize sin as right and good. This is why it is so important to attack it at the beginning-as one would a drug addiction-before it becomes unmanageable, and eventually dominates one’s life and character. The tradition of slave-owning was so ingrained in Southern culture that many people who were noble in most other respects were blind to the moral travesty in which they were engaged. George Washington, for example, owned about 300 slaves, and thought little of it until he became directly involved in the struggle against the British for his own freedom. At that point, black slavery to him suddenly became the most graphic illustration of what the loss of liberty can mean for a people.
The entire point of the American Revolution, after all, was to prove to the world that kings and aristocracies were not needed and that people were perfectly capable of ruling themselves. "I clearly foresee," wrote Washington, "that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle." And shortly before he became President, he told a friend of his own uneasiness in practicing slave ownership: "The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labors I in part employed has been the only unavoidable subject of regret." He acknowledged how his participation in this lamentable tradition must indeed "be displeasing to the justice of the Creator."
But disentangling himself from Virginia’s past was problematical. Would it really be humane to suddenly set adrift someone who had been dependent all his life on the plantation owner for every necessity? What might become of the freed slave’s family, his children? Suppose they were incapable of supporting themselves? Washington knew quite well that the psychology of slavery was very different from the psychology of freedom. A plantation slave had no need to learn skills of self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and no means of cultivating the competitive instinct so vital for survival.
Washington was much beloved by his black workers. He fed them well, and encouraged them to marry and build families. He provided their education and made sure they were well instructed in the Gospel. If Washington had permitted his qualms about slave-owning to circulate, panic on a massive scale would have broken out among his slaves over the prospect of being turned off the land. What would they do, and where would they go? It was much easier, in other words, to proclaim noble principles than to actually carry them out.
In addition, half the slaves working on Washington’s plantation belonged to the Custis estate; he had no legal authority, therefore, to release them. There had been many marriages between Custis slaves and Washington slaves. To free only his half would tear families apart. So the institutional and humanitarian barriers to Washington releasing his slaves were enormous.
Nevertheless, he was determined to set them free, and laid out a plan to do so involving great personal expense. In order not to disrupt personal and familial ties, Washington resolved not to evict anyone from the property and to pay regular working wages to any former slave who decided to stay. Children would not be released until they were of age, and would continue to receive food, clothing, shelter, and education. In practical terms, Washington became their adopted father. Thus the cost he incurred to cleanse his estate of this shameful blight was truly staggering. Washington died before his program was carried out, but it was carried out. In fact, his estate paid wages, benifits, and pensions to former slave families and their progeny until as late as 1833.
By the time of the Constitutional Convention, slavery, in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans, was a morally bankrupt institution; but its proponents painted vivid pictures of how its elimination would cause the economic collapse of the South. Abolition of slavery, said one Carolinian, would "complete the ruin of many American provinces, as well as the West Indian islands." During the Convention, Charles Pickney and John Rutledge argued that abolition was utopian and impractical. But George Mason of Virginia disagreed: "Every master is born a petty tyrant," he said. "They bring the judgment of Heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities."
Many believe that the Civil War was exactly the national calamity of which Mason spoke. If the South as a whole had followed Washington’s example and paid the necessary price to forever eliminate from American soil this loathsome evil of pagan origin, 600,000 lives could have been spared; the sad and tragic war between the states probably never would have occurred.3 As the Reverend Stephen Hopkins had warned in his pamphlet on the issue, America is subject to divine justice, and for this national sin God would withdraw His protection and "punish us seven times more."
The Constitution included one measure intended to weaken slavery over time. The importation of slaves would be prohibited after 1808. It was a feeble provision, but if the opponents of slavery had insisted on more, the Constitution would have died in the Southern state legislatures. James Madison often acknowledged that the Convention’s failure to deal immediately and completely with slavery was its most serious shortcoming. "The whole Bible is against slavery," he said. But he also understood that in a fallen world all constitutions will be imperfect, and that this constitution was far better than no constitution at all. He was also confident that once the foundations of a free society were established, its benefits could be expanded and others could be enfranchised into the political process over time. Madison knew that freedom had the power of religious conviction behind it, and predicted that once it took root in the minds of the people, it would overwhelm pagan and feudal practices that impeded its progress. Not long after black Americans were freed from human bondage, women began demanding the vote; and their logic for doing so was irrefutable. America was destined not to be a land for the privileged, but a land of opportunity.
* * *
George Washington was elected unanimously to be President of the United States. He had no desire for the office. But everyone agreed, Federalist and anti-Federalist, Southerner and Northerner, that he was the only man suited to lead the new nation. Without his strong presence, the infant union was probably doomed. What was the Constitution, anyway, but a scrap of paper? As Christ had given Peter his commission to establish His church, so Congress commissioned Washington to give legitimacy to the new government. Reluctantly, he accepted the call, but solely out of patriotic obligation. "My movement to the chair of government," he wrote, "will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution." Named the "Father of his Country," he would rear America from infancy to maturity, and impress on the hearts and minds of the people that the Constitution is all but sacred law.
He arrived in New York, the capital, in time to be inaugurated on April 30, 1789. Placing his hand on a Bible, he took the oath of office, and then from the balcony of Federal Hall, before cheering throngs and much fanfare, he made very plain his views on the source of all legitimate authority.
"It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this official act, my fervent supplication to that Almighty Being, who rules over the universe, who presides in the council of nations, and whose providential aid can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States . . . Every step by which they have advanced seems to have been distinguished by some providential agency," he said. "We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained."
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart