The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
Legitimacy

The Continental Congress did its last business on October10, 1788, and went out of existence forever. 1The change was not "revolutionary" in any obvious sense; it had occurred without upheaval. There were no politicalprisoners, no bloodshed, and few of the aspects of coupd'état which characterized even the succession of republics in post-Napoleonic France, to saynothing of many other states in the two hundred years between that time and now. But time flattensout everything, and this orderliness could be taken somewhat more forgranted than it ought to be. It was only achieved in the face of resistance, andnot without great exertions.

The first phase of the movement for a new federalconstitution had contained many elements of conspiracy, subversion, and illegal manipulation. In view of popular inertia, and inasmuch as the only effective power in thecountry was dispersed and located in the several states, controlled by rulinggroups not at all anxious to see that power diminished, it could not have beenotherwise. Initially, the energy of the movement was the energy of determined individualsrather than that of popular support and consent. The latter was not automatic,and not to be achieved in a single step. It had to be sought, cultivated, andlabored after. The steps themselves could not be announced in advance, nor could theybe taken more than one at a time. The initial call for a constitutionalconvention had been represented as being merely "for the sole and express purpose ofrevising the Articles of Confederation," 2 not of doing away with them.When the Convention did meet, its sessions were conducted in utter secrecy, bydelegates from twelve of the thirteen states. The procedure for ratifying the newConstitution was cleverly devised and quite outside legal boundaries, as the law thenstood. It could go into effect after nine states had accepted it, as opposed to theunanimous consent required by the Articles. The machinery for "consent" wasnot a popular referendum. Nor was it to be given through the state legislatures,several of which would either have refused outright or strewn obstacles in its way,but rather

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