Correct Critiques of the Constitution: Using Speeches and Letters, McClanahan Catalogs the Founding Fathers' Varying Opinions regarding the Meaning of Several Critical Issues of Constitutional Interpretation

By Wolverton, Joe J. D., Ii. | The New American, March 5, 2012 | Go to article overview

Correct Critiques of the Constitution: Using Speeches and Letters, McClanahan Catalogs the Founding Fathers' Varying Opinions regarding the Meaning of Several Critical Issues of Constitutional Interpretation


Wolverton, Joe J. D., Ii., The New American


Wikipedia defines the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as "a scaled-down version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It comprises two volumes rather than the twenty needed for the full second edition of the OED." With that definition in mind, one could describe Brion McClanahan's new book, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution, as the Shorter Constitutional Convention and Ratification Records.

McClanahan, who holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina, attempts to condense into one 262-page book the often disparate views of many of the leading lights of the founding generation. Principally, Professor McClanahan holds up to the light of inquiry the Federalist (proponents of ratifying the Constitution of 1787) and Anti-federalist (opponents of the Constitution) views of the powers granted by our founding charter to the general (he avoids the term "federal") government and the proper exercise of those very limited powers.

Not surprisingly, McClanahan often describes the Antifederalists as "prescient" while pointing out the overly optimistic outlook held by those advocating the ratification of the Constitution created by the convention held in Philadelphia in 1787.

The authors of the letters advocating rejection of the Constitution as ratified (a qualifier frequently employed by the author to distinguish the original Constitution from the version so often misquoted) wrote under several noms de plume; "Federal Farmer," "Brutus" "Cato" Xen-tinel," and "John DeWItt" among others. Some opponents of the new Constitution, such as Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry and the brilliant orator Melancton Smith, chose not to sail under disguised colors and boldly delivered impassioned speeches in the state conventions.

On the other side of the debate were those men working to ensure ratification of the national compact resulting from the Constitutional Convention--the Federalists. "Federal" was a popular name, and by adopting it as a title, the supporters of the new Constitution framed the debate in light very favorable to themselves. Letters in answer to the anti-federal letters were written and published in four New York newspapers under the pseudonym "Publius." "Publius" was a classical Latin title thinly veiling the identity of the true authors: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

Despite the often interlinear aggrandizement by McCIanahan of the Antifed-eralist position, he does explain in very plain language that it should be well understood that Federalist and Antifederal-ist alike favored limited government that acted according to the will of the people. The difference between these parties (although they would not have described themselves as partisans) was one of degree: The Federalists favored a stronger, more dynamic national government while the Ami federalists desired a union where the states would be the dominant force in the federal configuration. Curiously, these differences became more marked in the years that followed the ratification of the Constitution, and the resulting fissure that appeared eventually ripped the fabric of the union in two pieces: North and South.

The union of the states is a frequent subplot in McClanahan's masterful retelling of the Founders' understanding of often controversial concepts of constitutional interpretation. In fact, the first chapter is devoted to the Preamble, and in it Mc-Clanahan calls Patrick Henry as a witness against the assertion that the Constitution was meant to unite the several states into one nation ruled by one central authority. When the topic of the Preamble arose at the Virginia ratifying convention. Patrick Henry pointedly asked:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

  Who authorized them [the delegates to the Constitutional Convention
  in Philadelphia] to speak the language "We, the People;' instead of
  "We, the States?" States are the characteristics and the soul of a
  confederation. … 

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Correct Critiques of the Constitution: Using Speeches and Letters, McClanahan Catalogs the Founding Fathers' Varying Opinions regarding the Meaning of Several Critical Issues of Constitutional Interpretation
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