Was the adoption of the U.S. Constitution a liberal or conservative act?

Code Blue

Ad Honorem
Feb 2015
4,291
Caribbean
The) Constitution was far more than "amending the Articles of Confederation."
Is that in furtherance of an argument that one or the other is more liberal or conservative?

I think most historians would agree that the attendees to the Constitutional Convention understood that the Articles would need to be completely replaced.
It's hardly a random sample. Did your historians note for you that the primary instigators of the convention were also among the attendees, "Plan" in hand; or that no one from Rhode Island seemed to perceive a need for complete replacement; or that the delegates approved of their own work much more than the folks back home?

In point of fact, the Articles were not completely replaced. The two constitutions have a lot more in common than they have differences. They were both attempts to fulfill the principles of the same Declaration. And both do.

Which kind of brings me around (though not in revolution): if one is to estimate the so-called liberalism and conservatism of these two governmental designs, doesn't it makes sense to start with the Declaration principles that the designs were intended to fulfill?
 
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Code Blue

Ad Honorem
Feb 2015
4,291
Caribbean
It would be absurd to then deny the Presidency to a majority of the people who cast their vote for that individual.
I don't see why, and apparently, neither did early America. This aspect of the Constitution did not prevent ratification or generate any great movement for repeal. That the general government elected the President under the Articles of Confederation, doesn't seem to have bothered anyone either.

This goes to the core of the question of whether these constitutions or these founders or the cultures that they represent are "liberal" or "conservative" in modern usage. If both of these modern schools of thought are adamant about a single national referendum by a United People of America, then the founders belong to neither school. If one of these two schools is adamant about that, then the founders are their constitution is more like the other.
 
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Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,775
Here's the summary of Nelson's book, by the way:

"Generations of students have been taught that the American Revolution was a revolt against royal tyranny. In this revisionist account, Eric Nelson argues that a great many of our “founding fathers” saw themselves as rebels against the British Parliament, not the Crown. The Royalist Revolution interprets the patriot campaign of the 1770s as an insurrection in favor of royal power―driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.

Leading patriots believed that the colonies were the king’s own to govern, and they urged George III to defy Parliament and rule directly. These theorists were proposing to turn back the clock on the English constitution, rejecting the Whig settlement that had secured the supremacy of Parliament after the Glorious Revolution. Instead, they embraced the political theory of those who had waged the last great campaign against Parliament’s “usurpations”: the reviled Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century.


Some of the Continental Congress thought that their disputes could be solved peacefully by an appeal directly to George III. In 1775, what was called the Olive Branch Petition was sent to George III asking him to use his influence to persuade Parliament, not that he should discard Parliament and rule directly. George III refused to read the Petition and called the Continetental Congress traitors. At which point none of the Revolutionaries bothered to appeal to the king any more.

When it came time to design the state and federal constitutions, the very same figures who had defended this expansive conception of royal authority―John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and their allies―returned to the fray as champions of a single executive vested with sweeping prerogatives. As a result of their labors, the Constitution of 1787 would assign its new president far more power than any British monarch had wielded for almost a hundred years. On one side of the Atlantic, Nelson concludes, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings."
Nelson is a Harvard Professor, btw.
Nelson is completely mischaracterizing John Adams, who thought the Olive Branch Petition was a waste of time. Hamilton and Wilson weren't even part of the Continental Congress when the Olive Branch Petition was sent. None of the Federalists wanted to establish a monarchy.
 

Code Blue

Ad Honorem
Feb 2015
4,291
Caribbean
None of the Federalists wanted to establish a monarchy.
Hamilton's desire for monarchy is probably the easiest to find, but he was hardly alone. Many would point to his "plan." Elsewhere:
“Here I shall give my sentiments of the best form of government—not as a thing attainable by us, but as a model which we ought to approach as near as possible. British constitution best form.”
--Alexander Hamilton
Founders Online: Alexander Hamilton’s Notes, [18 June 1787]

"I own it is my opinion, though I do not publish it in Dan or Beersheba*, that the present Government is not that which will answer the ends of society, by giving stability and protection to its rights, and that it will probably be found expedient to go to the British form.''
-- Alexander Hamilton 1792,
Words of the Founding Fathers (quote 1583)
*Interesting to me, as at least three founders identified the Twelve Tribes during the time of Judges as a model confederated republic. So, here is Hamilton using the same analogy, implying from the capital that he doesn't tell them back in the states that he thinks there ought to be a King.

Jefferson was more than willing to tell them in Dan and Bersheba of Hamilton's designs:
"Hamilton declared openly that there was no stability, no security, in any kind of government but a monarchy."
-- Thomas Jefferson
Founders Online: Notes on Alexander Hamilton, 11 November 1792

Hamilton worked to frame the Constitution, because he thought it would not hold up. I can't find that exact quote, but here he is, all depressed, that the election of 1800 marked the victory of Jeffersoniansim over Hamiltonianism, calling the Constitution "frail" and "worthless" and how there is no place in America for a man like him [a monarchist].
“Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself, and contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know from the beginning, I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric...What can I do better than withdraw from the scene ? Every day proves to me more and more that this America world was not made for me.”
--Alexander Hamilton, letter Morris, Feb. 27th, 1802

And to rope in at least one other monarchist: A lot of people in New England saw the their position in the union diminished by the acquisition of Lousianna: on sheer representation numbers, ethnically (as the territory had a lot of Spanish and French), and commercially (as the Ohio-Mississippi as a trade route would diminish their shipping dominance. So, the usual suspects in New England were clamoring about secession.

The Connecticut Courant, advocating disunion:
''Although our National Government must fall a sacrifice to the folly of Democracy, and to the fraud and violence of Jacobinism..." [To this wing of the Federalist Party, everyone who had disagreed with them since about 1796, was a "Jacobin."

The Eastern Argus taking the other side on Feb 10, 1804:
"The plots of these leaders of aristocracy have been showing their hideous deformity, at different periods, ever since the establishment of our Government. But that which discloses their ultimate design to overthrow our happy Government and establish a monarchy, appears in the declaration of Uriah Tracy, Senator from Connecticut."
They go quoting Tracy's letter to General Skinner:
"Republican forms of government will never answer"
"our Constitution is good for nothing,"
"the President and Senators must be hereditary,"
"it must be here as in Great Britain."
----


There is a lot more.
 
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Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,775
Here's the summary of Nelson's book, by the way:

"Generations of students have been taught that the American Revolution was a revolt against royal tyranny. In this revisionist account, Eric Nelson argues that a great many of our “founding fathers” saw themselves as rebels against the British Parliament, not the Crown. The Royalist Revolution interprets the patriot campaign of the 1770s as an insurrection in favor of royal power―driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.

Leading patriots believed that the colonies were the king’s own to govern, and they urged George III to defy Parliament and rule directly. These theorists were proposing to turn back the clock on the English constitution, rejecting the Whig settlement that had secured the supremacy of Parliament after the Glorious Revolution. Instead, they embraced the political theory of those who had waged the last great campaign against Parliament’s “usurpations”: the reviled Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century.

When it came time to design the state and federal constitutions, the very same figures who had defended this expansive conception of royal authority―John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and their allies―returned to the fray as champions of a single executive vested with sweeping prerogatives. As a result of their labors, the Constitution of 1787 would assign its new president far more power than any British monarch had wielded for almost a hundred years. On one side of the Atlantic, Nelson concludes, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.".
If the Founders wanted a monarch, they would have established one. The power of British monarchs had been limited in the 1689 Bill of Rights. It forbade the monarch from suspending the laws, levying taxes without consent of the legislature, prosecting those who brought petitions to them, infringing on freedom of speech, and requiring excessive bail. The US President cannot do these things either. The idea that the US President has more power than the Stuart kings is clearly wrong.
 
Jul 2019
592
New Jersey
Some of the Continental Congress thought that their disputes could be solved peacefully by an appeal directly to George III. In 1775, what was called the Olive Branch Petition was sent to George III asking him to use his influence to persuade Parliament, not that he should discard Parliament and rule directly. George III refused to read the Petition and called the Continetental Congress traitors. At which point none of the Revolutionaries bothered to appeal to the king any more.

Nelson is completely mischaracterizing John Adams, who thought the Olive Branch Petition was a waste of time. Hamilton and Wilson weren't even part of the Continental Congress when the Olive Branch Petition was sent.
John Adams opposed the Olive Branch petition because he knew that the king would not listen to it. He considered it a pointless exercise, because the king was already determined to remain a tool of Parliament, not because he disliked the concept of monarchy. Here's Adams, writing in 1775 for the Boston Gazette:

"If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington, knew what a republic was, the British constitution is more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government's being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend."

And here he is again in 1787, bemoaning in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America that the states didn't give their governors unlimited veto power:

"The English Constitution is, in theory, the most stupendous fabrick of human invention, both for the adjustment of the balance, and the prevention of its vibrations; and that the American people ought to applauded, instead of censured, for imitating it, so far as they have... The Americans [in the state governments] have not imitated it in giving it a negative upon their legislatures to the executive power; in this respect their balances are incompleat, very much I confess to my mortification."

Adams also fought to have the president surrounded by the same pomp and circumstance which surrounded the English monarchs, in other words he wanted the president to not only have the power of a king, but also the form. When a congressman complained that he had styled a speech by George Washington in the manner that the British styled the monarch's opening address to parliament, Adams bitterly retorted that "he was for a dignified and respectable government, and as far as he knew the sentiments of the people they thought as he did; that for his part he was one of the first in the late contest, and, if he cpould have thought of this, he never would have drawn his sword."


As far as Hamilton and Wilson were concerned - no, they weren't part of the Continental Congress, yet they both had called earlier for the colonies to be placed under the direct rule of the Crown. James Wilson had done so in 1774, in his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament; while Hamilton did so in his 1775 pamphlet, The Farmer Refuted. Both of them explicitly rejected Paliamentary sovereignty, accepted Royal sovereignty, and urged the Crown to take direct control of the Colonies.


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If the Founders wanted a monarch, they would have established one. The power of British monarchs had been limited in the 1689 Bill of Rights. It forbade the monarch from suspending the laws, levying taxes without consent of the legislature, prosecting those who brought petitions to them, infringing on freedom of speech, and requiring excessive bail. The US President cannot do these things either. The idea that the US President has more power than the Stuart kings is clearly wrong.
The English jurists (Blackstone, et al.) considered the Act of Settlement (1689) to be more than just a narrow limitation of the royal prerogative. It was a sweeping shift of sovereignty, turning the monarch into a mere executive of Parliament, de facto if not de jure. Many of the royal prerogatives which were retained were virtually non-existent in practice. For example, although the Crown retained the veto, it was only used 6 times since the Settlement (5 times by William and Mary, and once by Anne. The last occasion it was used was in 1708). In practice, King George wouldn't have dared veto an act of Parliament. Hamilton points out in Federalist 76 how in 1783, Charles James Fox proposed the East India Bill, which would've turned the EIC over to an independent board of managers. George III was vehemently opposed, but the bill passed the Commons anyway, and it was only due to George's blustering that the bill failed to clear the Lords. Yet Hamilton subtly points out how the King was too afraid to veto the bill, and would've been forced to give the royal assent. And again in 1782-1783: it was considered more of a likelihood that George would abdicate the throne than veto Parliament's recognition of the United States, which he opposed. Contrast that to our Constitutional system, where the veto is an entirely legitimate exercise of prerogative that no president is afraid to use.

Another, even more significant (and unwritten) change that happened in the aftermath of the 1689 Settlement was the creation of the Office of Prime Minister. Beginning in 1720 with Sir Horace Walpole, the Crown was forced to delegate virtually all of its executive powers to Parliamentarians who commanded control over Parliament. The ministers grew in power over the course of the 18th century, and by the time 1787 came around the king had absolutely no executive authority left. Contrast that with the American system where the Cabinet is firmly rooted in the executive, not legislative branch. Congress gets to advise and consent and even on occasion impeach, but the Cabinet with all of its power is completely a tool of the executive.

The federalists understood themselves as establishing a monarch, albeit an elective monarchy. According to Madison's notes, Hamilton made this much clear, when he was defending his proposal to have the President be President for life: "It will be objected probably, that such an Executive will be an elective Monarch, and will give birth to the tumults which characterise that form of Govt. He wd. reply that Monarch is an indefinite term. It marks not either the degree or duration of power. If this Executive Magistrate wd. be a monarch for life — the other propd. by the Report from the Committee of the whole, wd. be a monarch for seven years. The circumstance of being elective was also applicable to both."

In Hamilton's notes for this speech he wrote the words "British constitution best form".

In another telling exchange, when James Wilson spoke in favor of a single executive (June 1), Governor Randolph of Virginia stated that he was "hoping that nothing like a monarchy would ever be attempted in this country", and that "a hatred to its oppressions had carried the people through the late revolution." Tellingly, Wilson did not reply that there was any substantive difference between the power of the President and the king, instead replying that "the people of America did not oppose the king, but the parliament."

---------------------------------------------------------------

Once you understand this it becomes a lot easier to understand the vehemence of the Pacificus - Helvetius Debates, in which Madison and the Jeffersonians assailed Hamilton, Adams, and the federalists who stacked George Washington's cabinet for being monarchists and attempting to subvert the republic. The latter accusation was false and overwrought, but the leading federalists had been unabashedly impressed with the institution of limited monarchy for the past 25 years.

Edit: For full disclosure, I obviously took a lot from Nelson's book, which is what i'm defending. So no plagiarism accusations for me.
 
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Sep 2019
128
Seattle
If you take the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution together, they were liberal actions, insomuch has it was part of a general revolt against European colonialism, which didn't really end, in substance, until the 1960's...thus almost a two century process. Separately, the Constitution was a counter-revolution against the separateness of the colonies and the post-Revolution era of populism, which many of the colonial elite feared would degenerate into anarchy, endangering their wealth, as well as opening the several states to potential European power intervention. IOW, they were "liberal actions" in the context of World history, but a conservative reaction in the context of American history.
 
Sep 2019
128
Seattle
I don't see why, and apparently, neither did early America. This aspect of the Constitution did not prevent ratification or generate any great movement for repeal. That the general government elected the President under the Articles of Confederation, doesn't seem to have bothered anyone either.

This goes to the core of the question of whether these constitutions or these founders or the cultures that they represent are "liberal" or "conservative" in modern usage. If both of these modern schools of thought are adamant about a single national referendum by a United People of America, then the founders belong to neither school. If one of these two schools is adamant about that, then the founders are their constitution is more like the other.
The election of a President to preside over the Articles of Confederation Congresses was similar to "electing" George Washington to preside over the Constitutional Convention. These were largely symbolic parliamentary roles. The ratification process was tough...and it came close to failing. It succeeded, IMO, thanks to the compromises reached in the Convention and the ratification strategies of the Federalists. On the representation issue and the EC issue, I seriously doubt the Constitution would have been ratified by the southern slave states without the three-fifths compromise that impacted both.
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,347
The President has the role of the king in the British system of the time or the colonial governor. The Senate has the role of the House of Lords or the Governors Council in the colonies.They didn't establish a hereditary or absolute monarchy, but they copied the British system they were used to.
 
Sep 2019
128
Seattle
The President has the role of the king in the British system of the time or the colonial governor. The Senate has the role of the House of Lords or the Governors Council in the colonies.They didn't establish a hereditary or absolute monarchy, but they copied the British system they were used to.
Agree.