Radio 4 Review: Acts of Union and Disunion by Professor Linda Colley: Episode 14: Constitutions

LeftCentral Review 

Bickerstaff`s Boston Almanack 1789

We have the machinery of democracy, the structure and we have representative government but it was never a democracy and it never intended to be a democracy, it was founded by a small group of people who wanted independence from Englandthe motive was not democracy Howard Zinn  

Professor Linda Colley`s short talk on the British Constitution, allowed her to contrast constitutional developments in Britain; with that of the fledgling American Republic, then in the process of moving from Articles of Confederation towards a Federal government.  The `Constitution of the United States` is described by Colley as something; “widely viewed as sacred”, the sacrosanct words are then uttered by the anointed President Elect Obama.  Professor Colley then explains that the founding fathers were influenced by the British notion of a separation of powers; she doesn’t point out that the American version has teeth and while the founding fathers wanted a more democratic system than monarchical Britain, they didn’t aim for a genuinely democratic structure.  But rather designed a system of government that would allow power to rest in the hands of an elite group of rich men.  Her talk missed an opportunity to outline the real significance of Britain’s unwritten Constitution on the framers of the American Constitution.  

Linda Colley pointed out that, “the men of 1787 were also innovators not least in crafting a codified and ratified constitution, one written down in a single document that everyone could read.  This invention quickly went global by the end of the nineteenth-century most states in Europe, the Americas and in parts of Asia and Africa possessed written constitutions.  Today nearly two hundred countries do so with only one major exception; no state has achieved what passes for democracy without also generating some kind of written constitution. ”  Besides lacking analytical vigour, this commentary points out the obvious.  It does so while massively overstating the view that a democratic impulse primarily motivated the men who created the American system of government.

The creators of the US system did look to Britain and were impressed and alarmed by what they saw.  They were concerned that the British system granted the monarch too much power and in doing so allowed the king to usurp the political system.  The other institutions of government nullified in Britain, leading to tyrannical rule which became the justification for the revolutionary war of independence.  This experience encouraged the framers of the American Constitution to put in place an effective checks and balances system.  But the architects of the American constitution also had more immediate concerns, which shaped the design and form of the government model they adopted.

As Howard Zinn explains the founding fathers were stirred by the need to organise a strong central government, in order to deal with widespread rebellion.  As farmers and former revolutionary war veterans (such as Daniel Shays) fought against government oppression.  This rebellion and many others at the time frightened the founding fathers; the focus then of those who met in 1787 according to Zinn, was to create a central government capable of stopping further rebellion.  It was this which was at the heart of their innovative approach.  So the “southern states wanted to make sure they could prevent the rebellion of slaves.  The industrial north wanted to make sure they could stop rebellion amongst farmers – that was the idea of the Constitution”.

These immediate concerns were underpinned by a philosophical outlook that was very much shaped by James Madison, one of the key framers of the Constitution and President of the USA (1809 – 1817) often called the `father of the American Constitution` (an astute political thinker and also a very lucid one his views largely prevailed).  Madison feared majority rule, a fact which compelled him to uphold minority rights.  Given that very little regard was granted to an array of minority interests (a situation that went on for a very, very long time) it`s interesting to wonder which minority groups Madison wished to protect?  After all; the indigenous people were virtually wiped out and African-Americans enslaved.  This is especially so given his much vaunted “sacred fire of liberty” phrase which clearly didn’t include at least half of the population, women found themselves excluded from this democratic experiment.

In order to fully understand this we need to refer back to Britain and it is this issue that Professor Colley really should have highlighted.  The founding fathers and Madison in particular, were concerned that the political system that was then operational in Britain, was actually susceptible to democratic influence and this is something Madison wished to avoid. It`s this undemocratic impulse that became the reference point for the framers of the USA political system.  During the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Madison made specific reference to Britain: “In England at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people the property of landed proprietors would be insecure and agrarian law would soon take place”.  As Professor Noam Chomsky explains, what Madison actually feared was agrarian reform, a development which would massively reduce the property rights that Madison held so dear. The framers of the American Constitution designed a system of government that wouldn’t allow power to rest in the hands of a tyrant king but instead power was to be held by a self selected elite.  The “sacred fire of liberty” would indeed “burn most brightly to preserve the rights of those who own property” this was the minority interest that Madison wanted to protect.  During the Constitutional Convention debate Madison further warned that the founding fathers had to design a system that would ward off the injustice that would come from a functioning democracy. Indeed, it`s worth keeping in mind that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect property rights in the USA and government interference in the economy is often viewed as un-American, as the conflict between FDR and the Supreme Court well illustrates.

Professor Colley is right when she points out the men of 1787 were innovators, a point substantiated by an observation made by Madison in 1787 when he said that the political system would, “have to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation with a variety of devices to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”.     Camelot indeed doesn’t exist, not even in Camelot.


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