It is September 17, 1787. Delegates from throughout the nation sit in Philadelphia's grand State House. George Mason listens as the draft of the Constitution is read aloud. He felt as he did when reading the draft earlier: over three months of hard work, and this document is the result? Surely another convention could be held to produce a constitution more responsive to the people. Mason was filled with anticipation when the process began, but not now, after so many disappointments. All the delegates but three would sign this Constitution. Mason was one of the objectors.
Homework: Read the Background section, then turn to Mason's "Objections to This Constitution." Complete the "Analyze Your Document" and "Judge Your Document" worksheets.
Background: As the convention records attest, Mason contributed significantly to the writing of the Constitution during that hot, long summer in Philadelphia. He had firm notions about the nature of the legislative and executive branches and was committed to placing "checks and guards" on the system. A belief in the supremacy of the people underlay many of his speeches.
However, Mason became increasingly disillusioned by the proceedings, declaring in late August that "he would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." At the heart of his opposition stood the fear that government was moving away from its basis in the people's will. As a last-gasp effort, he offered a new proposal to the delegates: for a national bill of rights to "give great quiet to the people." Mason's idea was unanimously rejected.
During the lengthy ratification process, Mason was joined by many other opponents to the Constitution. These men, known as Anti-Federalists, shared a belief that Americans were citizens of their state first, then of the nation. They saw the proposed central government as overshadowing the powers of the states and people. They were united in their support for a bill of rights as a means of protecting the citizenry.
In contrast, the Federalists viewed Americans as citizens of their country first, then of their state. They believed that for liberty to prevail, the concerns of individual states must be balanced by the multiplicity of interests of the whole nation. In their opinion, the Constitution accomplished that goal without diminishing citizens' rights.
Scholars believe that Mason penned his famous document a day or so before the Constitution was signed. In the following weeks, he sent copies to several friends, including Richard Henry Lee and George Washington. Without Mason's knowledge, the document was first published in a Philadelphia newspaper in early October; in coming months, it appeared in papers in Virginia and New Jer- sey, was published as a pamphlet in Richmond, and was bound into a book on the pro- posed federal government.
The "Objections" provided fuel for the fierce ratification battle in Virginia. According to one account, an Anti-Federalist in Abingdon kept his pockets full of printed versions of Mason's work and left them wherever he went. Mason is also said to have widely distributed the "Objections." As one friend wrote to Washington, "I think he might have been satisfied with the publication of his objections, without taking the pains to lodge them at every house."
Class Activity: Briefly review the homework assignment. Then, discuss:
1. In the Virginia Declaration of Rights (VDR), Mason wrote that the "power" of the people was one of the foundations of government. Did he believe that the national constitution expressed the people's will? Give specific evidence.
2a. What were Mason's objections to the office of the president?
2b. During the convention, Mason argued for three presidents, each from a different region of the country. What are the benefits and disadvantages of such a system? Would such a plan work today?
3a. What was Mason's concern about the southern states? How was the South different from the North and East in its "Produce & Circumstances"?
3b. Today, do states still tend to vote regionally? What additional factors are at play? Does the political division between north and south still exist?
3c. Like many Americans at that time, Mason was worried that individual states would lose their power to a strong central government. Is the issue of states' rights still present in our modern age?
3d. We know that Mason believed in the sovereignity of individual states within a national system. Extend his emphasis on sovereignity to the modern international arena. What would Mason think of the United States' role in the United Nations?
4. Mason contended that importing slaves would "render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of Defence." How would this happen?
5. Mason called the government a "moderate Aristocracy" bound to deteriorate into a "Monarchy" or a "corrupt tyrannical Aristocracy." What did he mean? Do either of these labels fit our current American government? How would you label our government?
Group Activity: Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist
Re-enact the Constitutional controversy over the bill of rights, with students taking key positions in the debate. If you wish, create a television news program and interview the "18th-century figures" in front of a classroom audience.
Begin by dividing into five groups. Prepare for your assignment by reading Excerpts 2-5 and re- reading Mason's "Objections."
Group A: Assume the role of Mason, an Anti- Federalist. As a group, write a speech on why a national declaration of rights is important. Choose a spokesperson to deliver the speech during the program and to answer questions on rights.
Group B: Assume the role of a Federalist opponent to a national bill of rights. As a group, write a speech stating your views. Choose a person to deliver the speech during the program and to respond to questions.
Group C: Determine the program format. As a group, write an introduction to the program, describing the Constitutional debate over rights. Prepare questions to ask Mason and the Federalist opponent. Choose a classmate to serve as moderator.
Group D: Assume the role of 18th-century citizens. As a group, write questions to pose to the Anti-Federalist and Federalist during the program.
Group E: Consider the last 200-plus years of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Was it necessary to write a national bill of rights? Support your answer. Choose a classmate to present your remarks.
Possible program format: moderator's open- ing statement, Mason speech, questions from audience and moderator, Federalist speech, questions from audience and moderator, final comments from Mason and Federalist, remarks from Group E.
Writing Assignment: Write an essay on one of these topics.
1. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson on May 26, 1788, Mason said that he refused to sign the Constitution out of "Motives of sincere Patriotism." Define patriotism. Do you think that Mason acted patriotically in opposing the Constitution?
2. Is a national bill of rights valuable? Are there rights you would like to add?
More: Whether or not you share Mason's views, you have to acknowledge that he stood up for his beliefs. Write a short story or poem about a contemporary person (fictional or not) who also displays a courage of beliefs.
|Excerpt 1: Objections to This Constitution of Government.|
[ca. September 16, 1787]
There is no Declaration of Rights, and the laws of the general Government being paramount to the Laws & Constitutions of the several States, the Declarations of Rights in the separate States are no Security. Nor are the People secured even in the Enjoyment of the Benefits of the common law.
In the House of Representatives, there is not the Substance, but the Shadow only of Representation; which can never produce proper Information in the Legislature, or inspire Confidence in the People; the Laws will therefore be generally made by men little concern'd in, and unacquainted with their Effects and Consequences.
The Senate have the Power of altering all money Bills, and of originating appropriations of money, & the Sallerys of the Officers of their own Appointment, in Conjunction with the president of the United States; altho' they are not the Representatives of the People, or amenable to them.
These, with their other great Powers (viz: their Power in the Appointment of Ambassadors and all public Officers, in making Treaties, and in trying all Impeachments) their Influence upon & Connection with the supreme Executive from these Causes, their Duration of Office, and their being a constant existing Body, almost continually sitting, joined with their being one com- pleat Branch of the Legislature will destroy any Balance in the Government, & enable them to accomplish what Usurpations they please upon the Rights and Liberty of the People.
The Judiciary of the United States is so constructed & extended, as to absorb and destroy the Judiciarys of the several States; thereby rendering Law as tedious intricate and expensive, & Justice as unattainable, by a great Part of the Community, as in England, and enabling the Rich to oppress & ruin the Poor.
The President of the United States has no constitutional Council (a thing unknown in any safe & regular Government). He will therefore be unsupported by proper information and Advice; and will generally be directed by Minions and Favourites. Or he will become a Tool to the Senate -- or a Council of State will grow out of the principal Officers of the great Departments; the worst & most dangerous of all Ingredients for such a Council, in a free country.
From this fatal Defect has arisen the improper Power of the Senate in the appointment of public Officers, and the alarming Dependence & Connection between that Branch of the Legislature & the supreme Executive.
Hence also sprung that unnecessary Officer, the Vice-President; who for want of other Employment, is made President of the Senate; thereby dangerously blending the executive and legislative Powers; besides always giving to some one of the States an unnecessary and unjust pre-eminence over the others.
The President of the United States has the unrestrained Power of granting Pardons for Treason; which may be sometimes exercised to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the Crime, & thereby prevent a Discovery of his own Guilt.
By declaring all Treaties supreme Laws of the Land, the Executive & the Senate have in many Cases, an exclusive Power of ligislation; which might have been avoided by proper Distinctions with respect to Treaties, and requiring the Assent of the House of Representatives, where it cou'd be done, with Safety.
By requiring only a Majority to make all commercial & Navigation Laws, the five Southern States (whose Produce & Circumstances are totally dif- ferent from that of the eight Northern & Eastern States) may be ruined; for such rigid & premature Regulations [ ----] may be made, as will enable the Merchants of the Northern & Eastern States not only to demand an exorbitant Freight, but to monopolize the Purchase of the Commodities at their own Price, for many Years; to the great Injury of the landed Interest, & Impoverishment of the People; and the Danger is the greater, as the Gain on one Side will be in Proportion to the Loss on the other. Whereas re- quiring two thirds of the Members present in both Houses wou'd have produced mutual moderation, promoted the general Interest, and removed an insuperable Objection to the Adoption of this Government.
Under their own Construction of the Great Clause, at the End of the enumerated Powers, the Congress may grant Monopolies in Trade & Com- merce, constitute new Crimes, inflict unusual and severe Punishments, & extend their Powers as far as they shall think proper; so that the State Legislatures have no Security for their Powers now presumed to remain to them, or the People for their Rights.
There is no Declaration of any kind, for preserving the Liberty of the press or the Tryal by Jury in Civil Causes; nor against the Danger of standing Armys in time of Peace.
The State Legislatures are restrained from laying Import Duties on their own Produce.*
Both the general Legislature and the State Legislatures are expressly prohibited making ex post facto Laws: tho' there never was, nor can be a Legislature but must and will make such Laws, when Necessity & the public Safety require them; which will hereafter be a Breach of all the Constitutions in the Union, and afford precedents for other Innovations.
This Government will set out a moderate Aristocracy: it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a Monarchy, or a corrupt tyrannical Aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other.
*The general Legislature is restrained from prohibiting the further Importation of Slaves for twenty odd years; tho' such Importations render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of Defence.
Excerpt 2: Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia Anti-Federalist|
[1 October 1787]
It having been found from Universal experience that the most express declarations and reservations are necessary to protect the just rights and liberty of Mankind from the silent powerful and ever active conspiracy of those who govern -- And it appearing to be the sense of the good people of America by the various Bills or Declarations of Rights whereon the Governments of the greater number of the States are founded; that such precautions are proper to restrain and regulate the exercise of the great powers necessarily given to Rulers.
Excerpt 3: The Impartial Examiner
[This excerpt was taken from one of five Anti-Federalist essays which appeared in the Virginia Independent Chronicle from February - June 1788.]
To the free people of Virginia.
... It has been held in a northern state by a zealous advocate for this constitution that there is no necessity for a "bill of rights" in the foederal government; although at the same time he acknowledges such necessity to have existed when the constitutions of the separate governments were established. He confesses that in these instances the people "invested their representatives with every power and authority, which they did not in ex- plicit terms reserve": but "in delegating foederal powers," says he, "every thing, which is not given, is reserved" ... But, surely, when this doctrine comes to be applied to the proposed foederal constitution, which is framed with such large and extensive powers, as to transfer the individual sover-eignity from each state to the aggregate body, -- a constitution, which delegates to Congress an authority to interfere with, and restrain the legislatures of every state -- invests them with supreme powers of legislation throughout all the states -- annihilates the separate independency of each; and, in short -- swallows up and involves in the plentitude of its jurisdiction all other powers whatsoever: -- I shall not be taxed with ar- rogance in ... insisting on the necessity of a positive unequivocal declaration in favor of the rights of freemen in this case even more strongly than in the case of their separate governments. For it seems to me that when any civil establishment is formed, the more general its influence, the more extensive the powers, with which it is invested, the greater reason there is to take the necessary precaution for securing a due administration, and guarding against unwarrantable abuses.
Excerpt 4: The Federalist No. 38|
James Madison, a Virginia Federalist
[Excerpts 4 and 5 are taken from a series of essays published in 1787 and 1788 during the ratification battle in New York State.]
To the People of the State of New York:
A patient who finds his disorder daily growing worse, and that an efficacious remedy can no longer be delayed without extreme danger, after cooly revolving his situation, and the characters of different physicians, selects and calls in such of them as he judges most capable of administering relief, and best entitled to his confidence ... Such a patient and in such a situation is America at this moment. She has been sensible of her malady. She has obtained a regular and unanimous advice from men of her own deliberate choice. And she is warned by others against following this advice under pain of the most fatal consequences. Do the monitors deny the reality of her danger? No. Do they deny the necessity of some speedy and powerful remedy? No. Are they agreed, are any two of them agreed, in their objections to the remedy proposed, or in the proper one to be substituted? Let them speak for themselves. This one tells us that the proposed Constitution ought to be rejected, because it is not a confederation of the States, but a government over individuals. Another admits that it ought to be a government over in- dividuals to a certain extent, but by no means to the extent proposed. A third does not object to the government over individuals, or to the extent proposed, but to the want of a bill of rights. A fourth concurs in the absolute necessity of a bill of rights, but contends that it ought to be ... not of the personal rights of individuals, but of the rights reserved to the States in their political capacity. A fifth is of opinion that a bill of rights of any sort would be superfluous and misplaced ... Let each one come forward with his particular explanation, and scarce any two are exactly agreed upon the subject.
Excerpt 5: The Federalist No. 84
Alexander Hamilton, a New York Federalist
[Excerpts 4 and 5 are taken from a series of essays published in 1787 and 1788 during the ratification battles in New York State.]
To the People of the State of New York:
In the course of the foregoing review of the Constitution, I have taken notice of, and endeavored to answer most of the objections which have appeared against it ...
The most considerable of the remaining objections is that the plan of the convention contains no bill of rights ... And yet the opposers of the new system, in this State ... are among the most intemperate partisans of a bill of rights ... They allege two things: one is that, though the constitution of New York has no bill of rights prefixed to it, yet it contains, in the body of it, various provisions in favor of particular privileges and rights, which, in substance, amount to the same thing; the other is, that the Constitution adopts, in their full extent, the common and statute lawof Great Britain, by which many other rights, not expressed in it, are equally secured.
To the first I answer, that the Constitution proposed by the convention contains, as well as the constitution of this State, a number of such provisions ...
It has been several times truly remarked that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was MAGNA CARTA, obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John ... Here [in America] ... the people surrender nothing; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. "WE, THE PEOPLE of the United States, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America" [sic.] Here is a better recognition of popular rights than volumes of those aphorisms which make the principal figure in several of our State bills of rights ...
I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? ...
There remains but one other view of this matter to conclude the point. The truth is, after all the declamations we have heard, that the Constitution is itself, in every rational sense and to every useful purpose, A BILL OF RIGHTS ... The constitution of each State is its bill of rights. And the proposed Constitution, if adopted, will be the bill of rights of the Union.