A Limiting Document?by Brion McClanahan
Aug. 29, 2012
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There is a common mantra among those who pursue the old republican principles of freedom and limited government that the Constitution limits the power of the central government, and therefore if we just followed the document everything would be ok; if it were only that simple. They are not entirely wrong, but the characterization of the Constitution as a “limiting document” is only partly true.
During the great "sales job" of 1787 and 1788, proponents of the Constitution swore that the powers of the central government, as enumerated in the Constitution, could never be enlarged or enhanced. The Constitution, it was said, differed from the English model because it was a written document, as opposed to the unwritten British model of common law that could fluctuate with the will of ambitious and unscrupulous judges. The only interpretation could be found in the language of the document itself, and if the general government exceeded its constituted authority, the people were no longer duty bound to follow such tyranny. Alexander Hamilton said as much in the Federalist essays, as did other proponents of the document, such as James Iredell of North Carolina, George Nicholas and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, among others.
Many of the proponents of the document were good, honest men who believed in sound American principles of government. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, John Dickinson of Delaware, and John Rutledge of South Carolina come to mind. Yet, no one would ever accuse Hamilton and Wilson of being anything more than ardent nationalists, but there they were, in 1787 and 1788, defending the Constitution on the basis that its powers were limited by their strict enumeration and that the Constitution would continue the federal republic as under the Articles of Confederation. The States bought it and ratified the document. Unfortunately, the story did not end there nor did all Americans believe such shysters as Hamilton and Wilson. There were holes in their story.
The ratification of the Constitution was a messy business precisely because the opposition understood what the Constitution could and would ultimately do to liberty and good government in the United States. Violence, intimidation, and the suppression of a free press in many States followed. That is the untold story. In Pennsylvania, opponents of the document were forcibly dragged to their seats by a mob in order to secure a quorum to call for a ratifying convention and then once the document was ratified, mobs whipped up on their opponents in drunken jubilation, literally at times. At the same time, the press virtually ignored the opposition and often printed only the speeches and pamphlets written in support of the document.
The situation was worse in Connecticut. There the opposition – labeled as the "Wrongheads" – was blacklisted from the press, and the only surviving speeches from the January ratifying convention come from the proponents, not by accident. Connecticutter Hugh Ledlie, a veteran of the French and Indian War and the American War for Independence and a member of the Sons of Liberty, wrote shortly after the document was ratified in his State that the Constitution would "in the end…work the ruin of the freedom and liberty of these thirteen dis-united states…" and he called the Constitution "a gilded pill."
Most Americans also probably don’t know that Hamilton was taken to task in the New York Ratifying Convention and, in essence, exposed as a liar. After one of his speeches in support of the document, John Lansing produced his notes of the Philadelphia Convention which showed that Hamilton wanted and favored a Constitution unlike the one he supposedly supported. Lansing said Hamilton could not be trusted. New York ratified the document anyway by two votes. As in Pennsylvania, violence then gripped the State as proponents took to the streets in New York City. It was hazardous to your health to be a so-called "Anti-Federalist" in 1788. Of course the famous essays of "Brutus" and "An Old Whig" along with the speeches of Patrick Henry of Virginia (every American should read them) and the close votes in New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts clearly show that the Constitution was not the glorious culmination of wisdom that modern Americans view it to be.
How could people like Ledlie, Henry, "Brutus" and "An Old Whig" describe the Constitution as a document that would subvert liberty when, if the "limiting document" school is correct, the powers of the general government are circumscribed by their enumeration? Simple. Because opponents correctly saw the Constitution and the powers granted to it by the people of the States as a vehicle for unlimited tyranny. The Constitution established a powerful central authority – with the ability to tax, spend, borrow, and wage war – one that if unchecked and unleashed would destroy the "Principles of ’76," namely republicanism, decentralization, and liberty.
To opponents, the only proper check was a bill of rights, and almost every State that submitted a set of proposed amendments placed a "State sovereignty" amendment at the top of the list. These proposed "State sovereignty" amendments were a direct assault on the vague language of the document, namely the infamous "sweeping clauses" now known as the "Necessary and Proper Clause," the "Supremacy Clause," and the "General Welfare Clause." The Constitution only became a "limiting document" with the ratification of the Tenth Amendment, and that is why its enforcement is paramount. Without it, the Constitution as written opens a malleable Pandora’s Box for scheming politicians to use to their advantage. It was not sold to the States that way in 1787 and 1788, nor would it have been ratified had the people of the States thought the general government would turn out to be the modern leviathan in Washington D.C., but when arguing that the Constitution is a "limiting document," it must always be remembered that is only the case if we faithfully adhere to the Tenth Amendment and the Constitution as ratified and sold to the States. Otherwise, the opponents of the document who warned against its ratification will forever be proven correct. We were warned.
Brion McClanahan [send him mail] holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina and is a faculty member at Tom Woods's Liberty Classroom. He is the author or co-author of three books: The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012); Forgotten Conservatives in American History (with Clyde Wilson, Pelican, 2012); and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009).