The Founding Fathers

By Carey, George W.; Weiner, Greg | Modern Age, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Founding Fathers

Carey, George W., Weiner, Greg, Modern Age

Several fine and highly readable accounts of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention have appeared over the decades. What characterizes most of these works--as well as, we should add, the countless articles dealing with the Convention--is their focus not only on the delegates, their backgrounds and views, but also on the conflicts that arose between them during their deliberations. Perhaps most prominent among these readings is John Roche's seminal essay "The Founding Fathers: A Reform. Caucus in Action," which casts delegates to the Convention as politicians rather than as theorists and emphasizes their employment of compromise to overcome conflict. (1) The result, Roche writes, is that "the careful observer of the day-to-day work of the Convention finds no over-arching principles." Such principles as appear to exist, he suggests, were retrospective justifications applied to the products of compromise. This focus is quite understandable, if for no other reason than that it provides a context for a better understanding of the dynamics of the Convention, how differences of interest and theoretical persuasion were reconciled, and why the Constitution took the form it did. Such is the case, to take the most dramatic example, with the well-known account of the "large state, small state controversy" that almost resulted in the breakdown of the Convention.

Yet this portrait of the Philadelphia Convention as a "reform caucus overlooks the considerable extent to which the delegates were constrained by, and therefore only relatively modestly modified, long-established political forms in use in the American colonies and states for decades. This is to say, they showed an inclination to follow John Dickinson's admonition, "Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us." (2) In this sense, the Convention was less a reform caucus than a conserving one. Indeed, while it is undeniably true that the delegates were skilled at the art of compromise, the Convention was also characterized by a remarkable degree of consensus on fundamental matters of governance. This consensus reached not merely the republican underpinnings of the regime but also several particulars as to its form, such as bicameralism and the separation of powers.

Roche correctly notes that the framers were not abstract theorists, but they were theoretically sophisticated. The general absence of abstract theory in their debates may largely reflect the fact that few fundamental theoretical issues were in dispute; on the contrary, such conflicts as did exist pertained largely to the best practical means of realizing ideals on which the overwhelming proportion of delegates agreed. The sheer magnitude of the task before the delegates--that of uniting independent and largely sovereign states under one government--would probably have been impossible lacking a consensus on the basic principles of governance. Moreover, given the speed with which the Convention completed its work, this consensus clearly had to embrace a number of concrete matters of governance, principally those relating to the procedures and structures of government necessary for the realization of the basic principles.

Equally important, a major source of this consensus, we believe, is to be found in the American political tradition, starting with the principles and practices of government stretching back to the earliest colonial times. Prior forms provided the basis of broad consensus and set practical boundaries to the options available to the framers. Consequently, the most important areas of consensus did not need to be "arrived" at or achieved by compromise to begin with; they were supplied by experience. To put this otherwise, if we place the Philadelphia Convention and its handiwork into a broader historical perspective, we encounter again a trait in the American political tradition that was evident in the period leading up to the Revolution, that which Friedrich von Gentz identified as a "lack of abstract theory. …

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