Thursday, October 9, 2014

Federalist No. 2, Part IV: Moderation, contd.

Also contained in paragraph ten of Federalist No. 2 is Jay’s insistence that the delegates at Philadelphia, “passed many months in cool, uninterrupted, and daily consultations,” and that these men were unawed by power or, “influenced by any passions except love for their Country.” Two things are worth noting up front, I believe. One is that because the proceedings of the constitutional convention were conducted in secret the debates themselves were not a matter of public record, and thus were not formally recorded or published. Most of what is known of the events of the convention is owed to the efforts of James Madison, who carefully chronicled the discussions as they took place for the sake of posterity, and whose records were published decades after the fact. The second relevant fact is that while Madison was one of the chief architects of the convention itself, attended it as a delegate for the state of Virginia and was present at almost every session, Jay was then serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs and is not recorded as having been in attendance at all.

That being said, Madison’s records contain evidence of numerous heated debates on a variety of subjects, from apportionment, to the nature of the elections of the senate and president, to protections of slavery and federal regulation of commerce. Far from being “cool , uninterrupted,” consultations, the convention sessions saw delegates from small states squaring off against those from large states, fault lines form between pro and anti-slavery factions, accusations levelled of seeking personal political advantage, and as deliberations wore on the shooting down of key proposals by exhausted attendees who simply wanted to adjourn and go home. It’s also worth considering that: only twelve states sent delegates to begin with, Rhode Island having refused to participate; that two of New York’s delegates, in disagreement with most of what transpired, left soon after the convention got under-way and left their state’s business to Alexander Hamilton alone; that of the delegates who were present at the conclusion of the conference three refused to sign the finished document in protest of a Bill of Rights being omitted. Far from being marked by unanimity, the Philadelphia Convention was defined by vociferous debate, frequent disagreement, and at-times dramatic gestures of defiance.

As to the passions that influenced them, I don’t doubt that love of country was on the minds of many of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention. However it was not the only thing that motivated those in attendance, and at times seemed to have been completely overshadowed by the personal economic considerations of some of the delegates themselves. The issue of slavery in particular, and the role of the proposed federal government to regulate or even abolish it, brought to the surface a great deal of partisan rancour that split the delegates along a previously unseen North/South axis. Though, in 1787, African slaves made up nearly 1/5 of the total population of the states and twenty-five of the convention’s fifty-five delegates personally owned them, ninety percent of slaves lived in the South. Indeed, in states like South Carolina and Virginia, between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 families owned at least one slave, and the basis of the Southern plantation economy was rooted in the wage-free labour that chattel-slaver provided. As a result the debates surrounding its potential limitation or elimination aroused fierce resistance from those whose livelihood depended on its perpetuation.

Even after it became clear that abolition was out of the question, once several Southern delegations refused to continue their participation otherwise, the issue of regulation continued to be a subject of tension and disagreement. On two separate occasions the convention attendees agreed to postpone the discussion on limiting American participation in the international slave trade because no compromise was forthcoming. So attached were certain delegates to federal protection of slavery that, when agreement finally arrived it saw them cede greater authority to the federal government in the realm of taxation and trade regulation (which they had strongly opposed previously) in exchange for a twenty-year moratorium on government interference in the slave trade. Slavery was among the issues that exerted the strongest effect on the convention delegates in Philadelphia, not only because it touched on deeply held moral and philosophical principles but because it was foundational to the economic reality of fully half of the purported Union. Far from simply love of country, money also helped shape one of the most influential debates of the entire convention and the United States Constitution for generations to come.

It is at least possible that Jay was not aware of the content or character of the convention debates any more that most of the American public would have been in 1787/88. In such case, his writings on the subject could be considered the product of simple ignorance. Given only a partial impression, perhaps by friends or acquaintances that were in attendance, he conceived of the Philadelphia Convention in the best possible light, for want of evidence to the contrary. Having said that, I have little doubt that John Jay was aware of what actually transpired. Though he had not personally been in attendance at Philadelphia he was well-acquainted with many who were, and the fact of his collaboration with Hamilton and Madison on the Federalist Papers would seem to suggest that the trio were more or less on the same page. More to the point he was well versed in the political conflicts of the day that existed between the various states, or even within them. As a state legislator he knew what divided New Yorkers; as a diplomat he knew the foreign threats that America faced; as an officer of Congress he knew what the states had to argue about; and as an anti-slavery activist he knew how volatile an issue that could be. In a proposed gathering of delegates from twelve of thirteen states, John Jay would not have need it explained what conflicts would have arisen. Consequently his attempt to portray the convention in a self-consciously optimistic light must be taken as a purposeful, if well-intentioned, attempt to mislead.

This should hardly come as any kind of surprise. Hamilton and Jefferson alike were not averse to taking advantage of what they knew and their audience didn't in order to favourably shift the terms of the debates they were engaged in. They omitted certain details, glossed over others, exaggerated this element and downplayed that one; all with the aim of more effectively getting their point across. Schooled in the same kind of rhetoric as his more celebrated contemporaries, John Jay was no different. He summarised the Philadelphia Convention in the most hopeful sense, partially because the debates themselves were not the subject under discussion, but mainly with the intent of fostering an environment among his readers more conducive to compromise. If the men that had been chosen to represent the various states in Philadelphia, considered among the best minds of their generation, were portrayed as selfless, conciliatory and patient, perhaps their countrymen could be persuaded to follow suit. As Jay pointed out in paragraphs twelve and thirteen, in spite of their inexperience with national government Americans had come to trust the Continental Congress and the men that comprised it to direct the course of their affairs in war and in peace. That being the case,

“Greater reason have they now to respect the judgement and advice of the Convention, for it is well known that some of the most distinguished members of that Congress, who have been since tried and justly approved for patriotism and abilities, and who have grown old in acquiring political information, were also members of this Convention, and carried into it their accumulated knowledge and experience.”

The sum of these arguments is something like an equation. The American people came to trust the members of the Continental Congress to conduct the affairs of the nation; the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were principally former members of that Congress; their trust and confidence should logically carry over to the second body of men and the all-important document that they collectively drafted. That these same erstwhile public servants could be said to have conducted themselves with patience, even tempers and sound reasoning might too induce those whose respect they enjoy to follow their example.

            Of course Jay knew that this was not a done thing. In paragraph eleven he admitted at length that cooler heads do not always prevail, even when the matters under consideration are of considerable gravity. The proposed plan of government was, after all, a recommendation, and one whose legitimacy would ultimately derive from neither, “blind approbation, nor […] blind reprobation,” but from, “that sedate and candid consideration, which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand.” This was, however, more to be hoped than expected. Even the illustrious Congress of 1774, Jay remarked, was not immune from criticism or capable of uniting all Americans behind a common sentiment. Though the Revolution was ultimately successful and the leadership of Congress validated, debate was an unavoidable part of the process. The ratification of the Constitution was to be no different. While, as Jay pointed out, apparent enemies of progress may be motivated by personal interests or simple misunderstandings, their input should be welcomed so that they might approach the truth on their own terms and thereby develop a more sincere appreciation of their errors. These too are Enlightenment ideals; that debate is the soul of reason, and that truth is great and will always prevail.

            Jay ended Federalist No. 2 with a warning of sorts. As stated previously, in spite of what he perceived as the widespread validation of a union of the various American states, there were those in the 1780s that argued in favour of a division of said union into a number of smaller confederacies. “I am persuaded in my own mind,” Jay wrote, “that the people have always thought right on this subject, and that their universal and uniform attachment to the cause of the Union rests on great and weighty reasons.” Allowing, however, that the Constitution might be defeated Jay hoped, “it may be as clearly foreseen by every good Citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim in the words of the Poet, ‘Farewell! a long Farewell to all my Greatness.’” This is a rather theatrical way of characterizing the circumstances, but it’s not entirely without precedent. Indeed, it rather calls upon the notion of American exceptionalism; that the United States is destined for greatness, and that in 1787 it stood at a crossroads between its rightful place of triumph and fame and an inglorious exile to the sidelines of history.

            In the history of what would become the United States this kind of sentiment was far from uncommon. The Puritans who first migrated to Massachusetts Bay in the 17th century did so with at least the partial understanding that they would be forming a community in the New World that would not have been possible in the Old. As noted Puritan leader John Winthrop preached, they were setting about creating a “City on a Hill” that would serve as a moral and social model for the rest of the world. The Quakers of Pennsylvania, though lacking the millennial perspective of their colonial neighbours, seemed to nurture a similar basic understanding of their purpose in America. John Penn had intended to forge a more perfect society than existed in the England of his birth; America, unspoiled and fertile, afforded him exactly that opportunity. In Maryland too, and in Georgia, men of vision saw a land where the impossible could be realized; where English Catholics could live and work without fear of persecution, or where those sunk in debt could remake themselves as prosperous, hard-working, moral individuals. While none of these visions were ever truly realized, or in some cases even came close, the underlying sentiment, that America was an exceptional place whose people were destined for more than the average, proved highly influential. It would not have been unusual, then, for John Jay to portray the ratification of the Constitution as being directly tied to that distinctive sense of American destiny. But, as he conceived it, greatness was not inevitable; a proponent of reasoned debate, free will, and truth, Jay believed that his countrymen must choose for themselves, all or nothing. Rhetoric it may be, but powerful all the same.

    But please, judge for yourselves:

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