The Greatest Political Convention of All Time
In this time of political conventioning, when so many ideas of government are being tossed about, it seems appropriate to compare today's happenings with the greatest political convention ever to take place in the history of this earth. Oh, that convention delegates today would have the same ideals and goals in mind as the American Founders! It is true that the purposes of today's political party conventions are somewhat different, but unless driven by the same philosophies as those who founded our nation, they will continue to prove disastrous to our Constitutional form of government. Today's delegates claim loyalty to our Constitution, but a review of the thinking of the participants of the Convention of 1787 reveals very little similarity or even attempts by today's conventioneers to parallel the principles which the Founders held to so strongly.
Many of these ideas and words are taken from a beautifully written chapter in The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen. His title for the chapter would make an interesting goal for today's political convention: Freedom-An Idea Whose Time Has Come. (see MOA pages 1-12 for documentation)
Developing a Freedom Formula Based on Restoring Correct Principles
The American Founding Fathers were students and philosophers as well as soldiers and politicians. They carefully scrutinized every system of government in existence to see which one was the most likely to make it possible for humanity to attain the three great goals of freedom, prosperity, and peace.
But among all the political systems of the day, there was no such government. Around the globe every government was structured to exploit its people, reduce them to poverty, and marshal their intimidated youth into predatory wars against nearby nations. No existing government was designed to provide its people with freedom, prosperity, and peace.
One of those who verbalized the feelings of the Founders at that time was Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who asked:
"Is there, at this moment, a nation upon earth that enjoys this right, where the true principles of representation are understood and practiced, and where all authority flows from and returns at stated periods to the people? I answer, there is not."
"To the philosophical mind, how new and awful an instance do the United States at present exhibit in the political world! They exhibit, sir, the first instance of a people, who, being dissatisfied with their government -- unattacked by foreign force, and undisturbed by domestic uneasiness -- coolly and deliberately resort to the virtue and good sense of their country, for a correction of their public errors."
As it turned out, the American formula was more like a restoration of what Jefferson called "the ancient principles" than an invention of something entirely new.
The Founders' View of Human Nature
The Founders were optimistic as well as realistic about human nature. They realized that all human beings are a mixture of sunshine and shadow. The sunshine consists of the perfectibility of human reason. This makes government and civilization possible. The darker side of human nature is the imperfectability of human passion and faulty sense of judgment that make government necessary. As James Madison stated, "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence."
The Founders' goal was to revive the ancient principles which would allow the sunshine side of human nature to enjoy virtually unlimited freedom, while setting up appropriate safeguards to prevent the doleful shadow of human passion, greed, and lust for power from spreading a permanent "dark ages" across the face of the globe.
Miracles Happened at the Founders' Convention
Several of those who had the honor of being called American "Founders," and who spent their lives and fortunes hammering out the practical aspects of a system of "freedom under law," called the final version of the United States Constitution a "miracle."
In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette on February 7, 1788, George Washington wrote, "It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the delegates from so many different states (which states you know are also different from each other, in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices) should unite in forming a system of national government."
James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in France on December 9, 1787, saying it was "impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle."
Recognition of the Hand of Providence
John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, commented on the singular good fortune of the Americans as they undertook the task of establishing a great free nation. He wrote:
"Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and ... innumerable streams for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants....
"I have ... often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people -- a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence."
John Adams saw the blossoming of human hope which was beginning to flower in America, and wrote:
"I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."
Establishing a Pattern to Correctly Solve Problems
As John Jay pointed out, the American people had been literally thrust into an amazing accumulation of fortunate circumstances which obligated them to determine whether or not a body of approximately three million human beings could deliberately, and by calculated design, organize themselves into a free nation. The possibility of immediate and tangible success gave that whole generation a feeling of obligation and a sense of mission which they felt compelled to fulfill as pioneers on the frontiers of political science and prosperity economics. They called it their "manifest destiny."
Thomas Jefferson's wrote:
"We owe every other sacrifice to ourselves, to our federal brethren, and to the world at large, to pursue with temper and perseverance the great experiment which shall prove that man is capable of living in society, governing itself by laws self-imposed, and securing to its members the enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and peace; and further to show, that even when the government of its choice shall manifest a tendency to degeneracy, we are not at once to despair, but that the will and the watchfulness of its sounder parts will reform its aberrations, recall it to original and legitimate principles, and restrain it within the rightful limits of self government."
Founders' Principles Give Hope to the World
Even before the American commonwealth of freedom had been established, people of all classes and all nationalities were beginning to anticipate great possibilities in the future development of something new and exciting in America. America seemed to breathe a spirit of hope into the minds of the restless and oppressed people in Europe. It had such a stimulating effect on the English that, before long, one out of every four Englishmen was living in America. There was even mention in some circles that the capital of the British Empire should be moved to America.
Probably no European saw greater hope for humanity in the American experiment than the French judge and political writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who had spent nearly two years in the United States. After the French revolution of 1848, he urged his fellow countrymen to look to America if they wanted to find the formula for the best government on earth. He said:
"For sixty years the [American] people ... have increased in opulence; and -- consider it well -- it is found to have been, during that period, not only the most prosperous, but the most stable of all the nations of the earth....
"Where else could we find greater causes of hope, or more instructive lessons? Let us look to America, not in order to make a servile copy of the institutions that she has established, but to gain a clearer view of the polity that will be the best for us.... The laws of the French republic may be, and ought to be in many cases, different from those which govern the United States; but the principles on which the American constitutions rest, those principles of order, of the balance of powers, of true liberty, of deep and sincere respect for right, are indispensable to all republics."
As the leaders of other countries studied the principles of the United States Constitution, there was widespread acclaim for this upward leap in good government and sound economics.
The great leader in Parliament, William Pitt, exclaimed, "It will be the wonder and admiration of all future generations, and the model of all future constitutions."
The prime minister of England, William E. Gladstone, later said: "It is the greatest piece of work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."
The first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, said, "I think and believe that it is one of the most perfect organizations that ever governed a free people."
Responsibility of the People Under the Founders' System
It was customary in some of the early state legislatures to have powerful spokesmen of the day come before the representatives of the people at one of their early sessions and remind them of the importance of the lawmaking process. An eloquent example of this kind of dissertation is found in a speech by patriot Samuel Langdon before the Massachusetts legislature in 1788. He declared:
"From year to year be careful in the choice of your representatives and the higher powers [offices] of government. Fix your eyes upon men of good understanding and known honesty; men of knowledge, improved by experience; men who fear God and hate covetousness; who love truth and righteousness, and sincerely wish for the public welfare.... Let not men openly irreligious and immoral become your legislators.... If the legislative body are corrupt, you will soon have bad men for counselors, corrupt judges, unqualified justices, and officers in every department who will dishonor their stations.... Never give countenance to turbulent men, who wish to distinguish themselves and rise to power by forming combinations and exciting insurrections against government.... I call upon you also to support schools in your towns.... It is a debt you owe to your children."
Convention Delegates had the Same Basic Beliefs
One of the most amazing aspects of the American story is that, while the nation's Founders came from widely divergent backgrounds, their fundamental beliefs were virtually identical. They quarreled bitterly over the most practical plan of implementing those beliefs, but rarely, if ever, disputed about their final objectives or basic convictions.
These men came from several different churches, and some from no churches at all. They ranged in occupation from farmers to presidents of universities. Their social background included everything from wilderness pioneering to the aristocracy of landed estates. Their dialects included everything from the loquacious drawl of South Carolina to the clipped staccato of Yankee New England. Their economic origins included everything from frontier poverty to opulent wealth.
Then how do we explain their remarkable unanimity in fundamental beliefs?
Perhaps the explanation will be found in the fact that they were all remarkably well read, and mostly from the same books. Although the level of their formal training varied from spasmodic doses of home tutoring to the rigorous regimen of Harvard's classical studies, the debates in the Constitutional Convention and the writings of the Founders reflect a far broader knowledge of religious, political, historical, economic, and philosophical studies than would be found in any cross section of American leaders today.
Many of the principles found in the Constitution had been expressed by earlier political thinkers. Three of the most important were Cicero, Baron Charles de Montesquieu, and John Locke. The thinking of others like Polybius, Thomas Hooker, Sir Edward Coke, Sir William Blackstone, and Adam Smith salt-and-peppered their writings and their conversations. They were also careful students of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and even though some did not belong to any Christian denomination, the teachings of Jesus were held in universal respect and admiration.
Preparation of Today's Presidential Electors
The American people are now two centuries away from the nation's original launching. Our ship of state is far out to sea and is being tossed about in stormy waters, which the Founders felt could have been avoided if we had stayed within sight of our initial moorings. They also felt that each ingredient set forth in their great success formula was of the highest value. They would no doubt be alarmed to see how many of those ingredients have been abandoned, or have been allowed to become seriously eroded.
Imagine how it would be today to see our presidential electors and convention delegates prepare themselves as the Founder's did and then come together to carry on the work of government. Surely it would give us once again the assurance of domestic tranquility and freedom would once again become America's greatest export to the world.
Earl Taylor, Jr.