July 28, 2023


The Other Father of the Constitution : a review of The Constitution's Penman by Dennis C. Rasmussen (Guy Denton, 7/25/23, Law & Liberty)

Thankfully, Morris' political views are explored with greater seriousness than his attitudes to sex. Rasmussen focuses on the role Morris played in the design and ratification of the Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention. His thesis, essentially, is that Morris deserves significantly more credit for molding the document and the character of the United States than history has tended to grant. We learn that Morris was a man of strong and often idiosyncratic opinions; he argued that certain facets of American government should take on a form far removed from what we recognize today. He was an ardent nationalist who disapproved of federalism, spoke of "the splendor of the American Empire" before the American nation even existed, and believed the states should be merged into a singular entity. He opposed the idea of a democratically elected Senate, arguing instead for an "aristocratic body" whose members would possess great wealth and serve for life without pay. (One can only imagine the conspiracy theories that would stem from the Senate today if its members included Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg.) Likewise, he advocated a House of Representatives composed exclusively of "common people" to serve as a check on the influence of the wealthy.

But in other areas, Rasmussen reveals how Morris' views profoundly influenced the structure of American government. Morris was committed to the idea that the American people should elect the president and fought harder for its adoption than any other delegate--he also prevented the presidency from being limited to a single term and lobbied exhaustively for George Washington to become the first occupant of the office. His influence on the judiciary was less substantial in the short term, but much of what he favored for that branch of government--judicial review, the independence of judges from Congress, and a system of federal courts--would eventually come to pass.

Morris was also a fervent opponent of slavery. He campaigned against the "nefarious institution" vigorously at the Convention, standing for his principles in the face of the wicked culture that surrounded him; his example would later inspire Abraham Lincoln and Henry Cabot Lodge. Rasmussen makes an especially incisive point on the issue, observing that Morris' "ringing denunciations of slavery make it harder to accept the idea that the framers, as creatures of their times, simply did not know any better. Morris knew better, and he told them so." It will take courage of this kind to preserve America's traditions of liberty today against the illiberalism of the nationalist right and progressive left alike, and Morris' example should continue to prove vital as the nation encounters new challenges.

Though James Madison is typically referred to as the "father" of the Constitution, Rasmussen contends that Morris deserves equal "paternity." He explains that although the initial draft of the Constitution was written by a five-person committee, it was Morris who combined that draft with a list of alterations agreed on at the Convention to create the final document. "There is hardly a provision in the document that was not touched by Morris's editing pen," Rasmussen writes. His most sweeping changes included reducing the number of articles from twenty-three to seven--dedicating the initial tripartite to the legislature, executive, and judiciary was his idea--and simplifying the draft's verbose language into "crisp, measured prose" so that the Constitution's meaning could not be misconstrued. 

Morris' most pertinent contribution, however, was the Preamble. Originally, the Constitution began simply by listing the states involved in adopting it. Morris changed that opening into what we know today: a rallying cry of freedom that elegantly presents the purpose of the American experiment. By referring simply to "We, the people of the United States" rather than addressing each state by name, he ensured that future states could join the union without any complications. Moreover, by declaring that the United States had been founded to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, secure the blessings of liberty, and so on, he "induced" all Americans to "bind themselves" to the pursuit of these ideals. The Constitution placed government in the hands of the American people alone, trusting them to act as their own sovereign. In the preamble, Morris provided this exceptionally democratic act with a moral framework to guide its course. Throughout American history, figures such as Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony have cited that framework to direct the nation toward the ultimate fulfillment of its founding principles. 

...is to look at what the document is trying to achieve. The Preamble is the lodestar. 

Posted by at July 28, 2023 7:34 AM