The Constitution Conspiracy

Happy Constitution Day. ‘Tis the day we celebrate the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, usually by yawning loudly. We Americans love our Declaration of Independence, but we’re less moved by our Constitution. Don’t bother us with the details, I suppose.

Over at Approaching Justice, Chris Henrichsen will be posting educational resources. I thought I’d post a little something different. This is a selection from Jesse Walker’s new book United States of Paranoia. Walker looks at the writing of the Constitution the way its opponents probably saw it. All of this is true, near as Walker can make it, but slanted just so:

When the colonies declared independence, the plot against America was detailed in the new country’s founding document. The Declaration of Independence did not merely describe “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” It argued that those abuses added up to “a design” to bring the colonists “under absolute Despotism.”

After the Americans defeated the puppet masters in London, they had to contend with like-minded marionetteers at home. A cabal of nationalists were dissatisfied with the young country’s constitution, called the Articles of Confederation, with its limits on the central government’s powers; they wanted to bring the country under more centralized control, replicating the old order in the now independent United States. They saw an opportunity in 1783, when Congress was unwilling to impose an import duty to fund a standing army. With one hand the cabal encouraged officers to plot a military coup; with the other they counseled the country’s leaders “to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation” by adopting Alexander Hamilton’s economic agenda.

The plot, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, fell apart after George Washington intervened to stop it, but the nationalists merely moved on to new schemes. The soldiers among them created the Society of the Cincinnati, an aristocratic military order that hoped to establish itself as a parallel government in each state, eventually superseding the elected legislatures. The society had “a fiery, hot ambition and thirst for power,” one patriot warned, and America’s government “will be in a few years as fierce and oppressive an aristocracy as that of Poland or Venice, if the Order of Cincinnati be suffered to take root and spread.”

When the conspirators finally struck, though, the blow came from a different direction. In 1787, they persuaded twelve of the thirteen states to hold a constitutional convention. In theory the conclave was merely going to propose some revisions to the Articles, fixing some widely acknowledged defects in the document. Instead, the nationalists “turned a Convention into a Conspiracy.” Behind closed doors, the delegates ignored their assignment and instead set to work replacing the Articles with an entirely new constitution, one that would concentrate far more power in the national government. Of the fifty-five people participating in the meeting, twenty-one belonged to the Society of the Cincinnati.

The extent of the new design did not become clear until a dissenting delegate, Luther Martin of Maryland, broke the convention’s code of silence and revealed the coming new order in a long address to his state’s House of Delegates. The nationalists, he warned, were “covertly endeavouring to carry into effect what they well knew openly and avowedly could not be accomplished”: a plan “to abolish and annihilate all State governments, and to bring forward one general government, over this extensive continent, of a monarchical nature.” Allying themselves with figures from the larger states, who didn’t share the conspirators’ grand design but did share their interest in reducing the smaller states’ power, the delegates had dreamed up a document that would enact the oppressions the colonists had fought a revolution to prevent: the power to impose direct taxes, the power to raise a standing army, and, in general, “the most complete, most abject system of slavery that the wit of man ever devised, under the pretence of forming a government for free States.”

Other Anti-Federalists, as the foes of the new Constitution were called, praised the speech. A Pennsylvania writer exulted that Martin had braved “the rage of the conspirators” and “laid open the conclave, exposed the dark scene within, developed the mystery of the proceedings, and illustrated the machinations of ambition.” But the exposé wasn’t enough: Running roughshod over normal legal procedures, the conspirators rammed through the Constitution in what amounted to an illegal coup d’état. Revising the Articles was supposed to require the thirteen states’ unanimous consent, but the nationalists invented a rule allowing the document to be replaced entirely with the backing of only nine states. Even so, the Constitution still had to attract public support, so the nationalists appeased the Anti-Federalists by adding a Bill of Rights to the document.

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