Overlooked Founders and the Key to The Constitution

Commentary By Brion McClanahan


Americans more often than not discuss the meaning of the Constitution through the lens of Supreme Court decisions and the famous Federalist essays of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.  That is only part of the story, and in the case of the Supreme Court, a subjective and politically tainted chapter.  The real Constitution can be found in the debates of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the debates of the State ratifying conventions of 1787 and 1788, and the volumes of public commentaries on the document produced during the ratification period.  The latter would of course include the Federalist essays, but Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were not the only proponents to spill ink on the merits and shortfalls of the document.  North Carolinians William Richardson Davie and James Iredell produced beautiful and well-reasoned essays in defense of the documents, as did John Dickinson of Delaware, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Tench Coxe of Pennsylvania to name a few.


That did not mean that Americans were unified.  In fact, the document faced an uphill battle in the three most powerful States in the Union—Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts—and support for the document in Pennsylvania was tepid at best.  The State ratifying conventions ultimately gave the Constitution its life and meaning.  That was where the real battle took place, and some of the best work on the meaning of the Constitution as ratified can be found there.  From Patrick Henry’s prophesies of dire consequences should the Constitution be adopted, to the fear in Massachusetts of a government too detached from the people to act, to warnings by the minority in Pennsylvania that the Constitution would produce executive tyranny, to the outright rejection of the Constitution in the first North Carolina Ratifying Convention, opponents of the document had as much to say about the evils of the proposed Constitution as proponents did the merits.  We have forgotten their story.  The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution gives them a long overdue voice.


The real story, however, is how proponents of the document it would be interpreted once it was ratified.  They swore it would never lead to consolidation, a loss of States’ rights, the trampling of individual liberty, the suppression of free government, or an executive with such power as to make him an elected king.  Those promises, along with the agreement that a bill of rights would be added, were the only reason reluctant opponents decided to support the document.  As ratified, the Constitution is a limiting document in the sense that its powers are restricted to those delegated to it through the compact among States.  Most importantly and in contrast to the prevailing opinion that an “original” interpretation of the Constitution does not and cannot exist, the Founding Fathers to a man during 1787 and 1788 argued for a document that maintained the federal republic as under the Articles of Confederation with enhanced power, but never a consolidated mass of one people under one “United State.”


The Constitution as ratified and then later amended in 1791 is easy to understand and interpret.  The founding generation did so, frequently, as they sold it to the States for ratification.  They would not recognize the modern interpretation of the document.  The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution is a clause by clause primer on the Constitution as ratified by the people of the States in convention.  That is the Constitution Americans should force the political class in Washington to support, not the Constitution that has been watered down by the Supreme Court and ignored and trampled upon by the legislative and executive branches.  As John Dickinson of Delaware argued at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, “Experience must be our only guide.  Reason may mislead us.”