Friday, March 23, 2012

The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution

The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution, by Brion McClanahan

In this book, Brion McClanahan documents the discussions, commentary, writing, and debate of those founders who were involved in Philadelphia in 1787, in the state ratifying debates, and in the public discussion during this time. He makes a basic claim – we all might have feelings about how the Constitution should be interpreted, yet what would seem important is how those discussing and debating the issue at the time between Philadelphia and ratification interpreted the document.

…a clear consensus can be gleaned from these debates. We know how the founding generation interpreted the various provisions of the Constitution because we can read what they said….the way proponents of the document defended it is the way it should be interpreted.

In my comments, I will set aside certain of my views, but I feel I must mention one of these up front:

Is it right that a document not voluntarily agreed to by an individual be somehow binding on that individual? How can an individual be bound to a contract to which he was not a willing participant? If one believes that an individual has a fundamental right to his life and property, the answer to the first question must be no, and to the second must be that he cannot.

There, I got that out of the way. Now back to the book. Regarding the debates in Philadelphia:

The end result was a document littered with compromises, the most important being one between the “small States” and “large States.” Everyone at that time, however, knew that those terms were nothing more than code words for a “national” centralized government versus a “federal” decentralized government….As the Constitution moved to the States for ratification, the great debate was whether we should have a national or a federal government.

It was the limits to a centralized government that were sold to a reluctant public. The author will go on to demonstrate that if the proponents of the Constitution had not clearly stated that the Constitution placed strict limits on the centralized government, it is highly unlikely that the document would have been ratified.

The author also clarifies the confusion, and in fact the improper application of the commonly used terms “Federalist” and “Anti-federalist.”

Opponents of the Constitution were never comfortable with the term “Anti-federalist.” They correctly pointed out during the ratification debates that what they wanted to retain was the federal system of the Articles of Confederation, and the proponents of the Constitution, instead of being federalists, were in fact nationalists bent on eliminating the State governments.

The Anti-Federalists clearly were not able to get the labels properly applied, and history has maintained this confusion. Perhaps this is the first example of the purposeful misapplication of labels for the purpose of aggrandizing the state and destroying the language available to those who favor smaller government.

Consider the terms associated with freedom, liberty, and limited government that are no longer available for general use: liberal, anarchy, conservative, and many others – even the terms freedom and liberty have been twisted. “How can one have freedom without a job?” if one understand the language, such use in nonsensical.

The author, instead of using the term “federal” to describe the government ultimately established by the Constitution, replaces it with “general” or “central.”

…it only had one “federal” component in the original document, the Senate. The government under the Constitution has always been “general” or “central,” but never “federal.”

Of course, the 17th amendment eliminated this distinction.

As I have done with other books, I will write further commentary on this book. I believe it brings value in understanding the Constitution as ratified and as understood and defended by those who were proponents. It seems reasonable that these factors are paramount in developing a proper interpretation of the document.


  1. You make Spooner proud. I once was your prototypical goose-stepping "believer" in the cult of the Constitution until I woke up late in life and realized it was all statist propaganda. While it makes for quaint small talk amongst the enslaved adherents it is in all reality a poison pen piece of parchment inflicted upon the masses who are simply to busy going about their slavish lives just so they can muddle through another day. Did you or I agree to this thing? So how is it our overlords hold YOU accountable while themselves not? Simple. They know it's an illusion so they act accordingly.

  2. I have no doubt that I had my light bulb moment on this issue either reading Spooner directly, or (more likely) reading someone who was commenting about Spooner.

    It is sad to see how far we have fallen - Spooner was so critical in an era that even many conservatives and libertarians look back on fondly (not for the non-whites at the time, obviously).