The Constitution and Original Intent

Historians have made a pretty strong case that the framers of the Constitution were more concerned with economic issues than they were with securing individual rights. In fact, the words of many elites in the confederation made plain their fear and disdain of unbridled democracy.[1] Seven of the eighty-five Federalist Papers were concerned with “the General Power of Taxation,” a higher proportion for that subject than for any other single subject in the collection.[2] Furthermore, Federalist No. 84 was clear in its assertion that an “indulgence of an injudicious zeal for bills of rights” was “not only necessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous.”[3] Holton took this idea a step further by asserting that the framers viewed Article I, Sections 8 and 10—the former granting the federal government authority to tax and the latter imposing a “crackdown on private debtors”—as the most important passages in the new Constitution.[4] Holton claimed his thesis was different from Charles Beard’s economic explanation of the framers’ intent; Beard posited that the framers “were cynically trying to advance their own economic interests,” while Holton believed that their motives were “genuine and questionable at the same time.”[5] I admit that I know far less about Beard’s work than I probably should, and I am not finished with Holton’s book, but thus far I remain unconvinced that the latter is doing anything more than splitting hairs.

Regardless of the framers’ motives regarding money, it seems clear that they were certainly interested in diluting the effects of popular movements and unfettered democracy. The House of Representatives contained the only popularly elected officials in the new republic; senators were chosen by state legislatures, and presidential electors were likewise appointed by the states. Judges were appointed and served for life. This final construction was based roughly on Madison’s “Virginia Plan,” and had been developed to prevent “the power of fleeting majorities to ride roughshod over the rights of minorities.”[6]

It is nearly impossible to know fully the framers’ original intent. Historians and scholars can only make conjectures based on the writings of those who were present at the creation. There are still substantial gaps, though, since the convention took place under a cloak of secrecy. The debate about original intent has raged since the ratification of the Constitution, however, and continues even today. One’s opinion on the matter seems to hinge on whether one believes that the framers etched eternal truths onto the tablets of a modern Sinai, or whether they understood that the Constitution was a living document designed to change and grow with the new republic. I tend to believe the latter, but I am confident that the debate will outlive me.

[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 291-92; Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 12-14.

[2] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (reprint, Charleston, SC: Tribeca Books, 2012).

[3] Ibid., 249.

[4] Holton, Unruly Americans, 9.

[5] Ibid., 86-87.

[6] Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 105.

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