Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.
The real “miracle at Philadelphia” that escapes Prof. Berkin’s attention and makes this latest constitutional exegesis less than satisfactory was the rejection of a nationalist plan of government contained in the Virginia Play of James Madison (which also reminds us that he was not the “father of the Constitution” as many scholars claim). Its nationalism, as was strenuously objected to at the time and which can be followed in Madison’s own Notes of Debates was two-fold in nature: a concentration of power for which the word “consolidation” was coined and the idea of one government for all of America operating directly upon individuals (through proportional representation) which was the very definition of an Asian or Turkish despotism and the same type of government that Great Britain had become and that was the cause of the War of Independence in defense of ancient English liberties.
Thus the origins of anti-Federalism within the Federal convention and its continuation into the ratification debates of 1787-1788. Besides the lack of a Bill of Rights, with which most Americans are familiar, the anti-Federalists also insisted upon the rights of states. They did so for several reasons: First, a federal government presupposed a sharing of power among its component parts (the former colonies now the states); second, a republican government
was only fitted for a small territory (as Montesquieu taught). While the Great Compromise of July 16, 1787 was a step toward a new federal government, with the states being represented in the Senate, those aptly named anti-Federalists demanded more and in the process became the real framers of our federal republic. They did so by putting the states back into the constitutional debate. Since the representation in the Senate was too small, anti-Federalists
demanded that the states themselves had to have a share in the government to better serve their diverse interests. At the same time, they distinguished between delegated powers (and very specific ones at that) and those to be reserved to the states (all the rest). The result was a new federal republic of a compound nature. Beyond separation of powers, those anti-Federalists had further divided political power between the general government and the states themselves.
In American, government would indeed be republican, federal, and limited rather than national in keeping with the “Spirit of 1776.” In the language of the day, it was a union of the states rather than the states united. To use
the correct technical term, it was a “compound, confederate republic” unlike any other federal government in the world (exactly as later Confederates would describe it).
None of the above “brilliant solutions” of the anti-Federalists, however, are to be found in A Brilliant Solution. What readers get, and what Prof. Berkin ought to know better along with many other constitutional scholars, is the standard Madisonian-Federalist mythology of a national government founded by framers (Federalists) who were not very federalist at all and the acceptance of the plan of government reported by the Federal Convention as “the Constitution of 1787.” What about the ratification debate of 1787-1788? Was it meaningless? Why the demand for conditional amendments (hundreds of them) that insisted upon individual liberties and the rights of states and which changed the
nature of the union? Why did Federalists oppose a Bill of Rights? What was the purpose of The Federalist? In the end, there are other original intentions and other lessons of the past that Prof. Berkin and others of a nationalist bias would rather forget. Fortunately, in 2003, readers can go on-line to read all the documentary sources for themselves (see the Library of Congress, “A Century of Lawmaking” at http://www.memory.loc.gov.)
—–Kirk Wood is professor of history at Alabama State University. His “Nullification, A Constitutional History, 1776-1833” is in progress.