The Constitution, George Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Bill of Rights

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 2nd, 2012

Politics 101

The People trusted no One Man with Great Power except, of course, George Washington

America had a new constitution.  It wasn’t easy.  For the American states covered a lot of geography.  And ideology.  These were a very different people.  Who had only joined together in union to resist their common enemy.  Great Britain.  But now that common enemy was no more.  What now?  These delegates who worked behind closed doors for 4 months in some of the hottest and most humid weather had done the best they could.  It was less a triumph of solidarity than the recognition that this was the best anyone was going to do considering how vast and disparate the people were.  So now it was up to the states to ratify it.  But would they?

Good question.  For there was a lot of opposition to transferring power, any power, from the states to a new central authority.  They had just cut the ties to one king.  And they didn’t do this just to submit to another king.  Of course, America would have no king.  For they would simply call their new executive president.  But it was still one man.  And many feared that this one man given some power may take more power.  So whoever the first president was had to be one of impeccable character and integrity.  A true Patriot.  One whose Revolutionary credentials were beyond questioning.  Someone who was in the struggle for independence from the beginning and never wavered in the cause.  Someone the people universally loved.  And respected.  Of course that could be but one man.  George Washington.

This is why we call George Washington the Father of our Country.  For without him there would have been no country.  For the people trusted no one man with great power.  But they trusted Washington.  And respected him.  Would even have made him king they trusted him so.  So because Washington was available to be the first president the delegates in Philadelphia signed the new Constitution.  For all their sectional differences this was one area where everyone agreed.  They were willing to risk having this new central government because they trusted it in the hands of this one man.  George Washington.

When Patrick Henry and George Mason opposed the new Constitution it was Doubtful Virginia would Vote for Ratification

Of course they weren’t just going to hand the presidency to Washington.  But the electors in the Electoral College simply weren’t going to have a better candidate to vote for.  Washington didn’t want the job.  He just wanted to enjoy retirement on his farm before he died.  And based on the longevity of Washington men he was already living on borrowed time.  But he would serve.  Again.  Because he fought too long and too hard to see the new nation collapse before it could even become a nation.  And he had no illusions about how horrible the job would be.  It was one thing giving orders in the Continental Army where people did what he told them.  But it was another dealing with Congress during the war.  Who couldn’t accomplish anything for the spirit of liberty.  As the states tended to look more after their own interests than the army fighting for their liberty.  Leaving his army barefoot, half naked and starving during the winter at Valley Forge.  And through most of the war.

So, no, being the president wasn’t going to give him the peace and serenity he could find under his vine and fig tree at home.  It would just put him closer to the partisan bickering.  But he was willing to sacrifice his own wants and desires yet again.  To serve the people.  But would the people want him?  For it wasn’t up to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention.  All they could do was make their case to the people.  Then let the people decide if they wanted this new government.  And perhaps the most critical state was Virginia.  Which not only gave us George Washington.  But George Mason.  Patrick Henry.  Thomas Jefferson.  And James Madison.

Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death!”  He was a great orator whose speeches could awe listeners.  He dripped Patriotism (even refused to attend the Philadelphia Convention as he feared it would lead to monarchy).  So did George Mason.  His Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) no doubt inspired his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who studied the same philosophers as Mason did.  So when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence you could read some Virginia Declaration of Rights in it.  So his Revolutionary credentials were solid.  So when Henry and Mason opposed the new Constitution (Mason was a delegate at the convention but refused to sign it) it cast doubt over whether Virginia would ratify the new Constitution.

George Mason and Patrick Henry joined James Madison in fighting for Ratification of the Bill of Rights

Mason supported republican government.  But he didn’t trust a large republican government.  Not without a bill of rights.  Which is why he refused to sign the Constitution at the convention.  James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, argued against any bill of rights.  For he did not think it was needed.  For the Constitution enumerated the powers of the federal government.  Citing specifically what it could do.  And whatever wasn’t specifically enumerated they couldn’t do.  Madison feared if they included a bill of rights that it could backfire on them later.  For someone would argue that the Constitution stated the government can’t do A, B and C.  But it didn’t say anything about D.  So clearly the federal government can do D because it wasn’t included in the list of things it couldn’t do.  Madison saw that if you listed some rights you must list all rights.  Which changes the Constitution from forbidding the federal government from doing anything not enumerated to something that allows the government do whatever it wants as long as it is not listed in a bill of rights.

For some, though, a bill of rights was conditional for ratification.  George Mason simply wouldn’t vote for ratification unless the Constitution included a bill of rights.  Even Thomas Jefferson wrote Madison from Europe urging him to include a bill of rights.  The tide of Virginian opinion appeared to be against him on the issue.  And Madison needed Virginia.  For if Virginia didn’t ratify the chances were slim for ratification in other states.  Which did not bode well for the country.  Because of how vast and disparate the people were.  The northern states weren’t like the southern states.  And neither was like the western territory.  If there was no union the north would probably form a confederation.  And being a maritime region they’d probably seek out closer ties to Great Britain and their Royal Navy.  With some of the bloodiest fighting in the south perpetrated by the British and their Loyalist allies this would probably align the southern states to Britain’s eternal enemy.  France.  With two of Europe’s greatest powers entrenched in the east the western territories would probably align with that other European power.  Spain.  Who controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River.  The gateway to the world for western agriculture.  Turning America into another Europe.  Wars and all.

Madison worked tirelessly for ratification.  Working with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay on a series of articles published in newspapers making the case for ratification.  Later bound together into the Federalist Papers.  And then changing his stand on a bill of rights.  Promising to include a bill of rights as the first order of business for the new federal congress.  This brought George Mason around.  He even helped Madison on the bill of rights.  Which helped tip Virginia towards ratification despite a fierce opposition led by Patrick Henry.  But after ratification he, too, helped Madison pass the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights.  Which Madison delivered during the first Congress as promised.  And then worked tirelessly for its ratification.

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