5.08.2009

Miracle at Philadelphia: QOTD 2

Continuing my ongoing (does the second of two count as "ongoing?") series of quotations from "Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787," today I have a passage that is quite different in tone than the last one.

My last post discussed "the quality of the men who founded the country, their passion and the sharpness of their intellects, and the profound seriousness with which they took their mission," and was, I thought, rather inspirational.

Today's post is somewhat cautionary. It should become clear why I say that.

Context: As the delegates to the Convention got down to work, the Virginians set the tone of the entire affair by proposing what became known as the Virginia Resolves. They consisted of 15 resolves that essentially outlined a new national government. Today's quote picks up the day after the Resolves were proposed, as they got down to business:
Characteristically, the Convention never stayed long upon theory. Its business was not to defend "freedom" or to vindicate a revolution. That had been done long ago, in July of 1776 and later, when colony after colony created its state constitution, flinging out its particular preamble of political and religious freedom. The Convention of 1787 would debate the rights of states, but not the rights of man in general. The records show nothing grandly declaratory or defiant, as in the French constituent assembly of 1789. America had passed that phase; had anyone challenged members, they would have said such declarations were already cemented with their blood. In 1787 the states sat not to justify the term United States but to institute a working government for those United States. One finds no quotations from Rousseau, John Locke, Burlamaqui or the French philosophes, and if Montesquieu is invoked it is to defend the practical organization of a tripartite government. When the Federal Convention discussed political power, governmental authority, they discussed it in terms of what was likely to happen to Delaware or Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Georgia.

Most members of the Philadelphia Convention, in short, were old hands, politicians to the bone. That some of them happened also to be men of vision, educated in law and the science of government, did not distract them from the matters impending. There was a minimum of oratory or showing off. Each time a member seemed about to soar into the empyrean of social theory -- the eighteenth century called it "reason" -- somebody brought him round, and shortly. "Experience must be our only guide," said John Dickinson of Delaware. "Reason may mislead us." [bold added, italics in original]
The Convention had a very specific mission: to craft a national government that was grounded in rights -- this meant state's rights, though individual rights were assumed -- and to get it to work, because they saw real threats to the Union in the way things were going. And of course, the rights of man were eventually addressed in the Bill of Rights.

But one wishes that this Convention had not relied on "declarations [that] were cemented in the blood" so much, and instead, allowed for quotations from John Locke to inform the proceedings explicitly.

The author, Catherine Drinker Bowen, was careful at the end to state that Dickinson and others used the word "reason" in a different sense than we do, but there is an inherent problem with using experience and the only guide when you are proposing something that has never been done in the history of the world.

None of this should cast a pallor on their achievement, but it does give one pause as an example of focusing only on practical considerations, without also concerning oneself with moral ones.

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