Refutation of the Charge That The Framers Perpetrated a Coup d'etat

For a multitude of reasons, political and otherwise, partly inspired by deep-seated fear of any central government with real powers, however limited on parchment--in a written Constitution--the framing of the Constitution was harshly criticized by a number of people throughout the period of the ratification debates. One of the principal arguments was that the Framing Convention acted beyond the scope of its authority, because it did not limit itself to proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation, in keeping with the original "call" for the Convention. (Instead it proposed, in draft form, an entirely new instrument for submission to the people for consideration through their specially chosen Ratifying Convention in each State.) Madison devoted the entire essay number 40 of The Federalist to refutation of this argument. Among the numerous and convincing reasons which he presented in support of the soundness of the Convention's course, a main one was "the crisis" then confronting the country but only incidentally, in passing, in the process of his analysis. Yet the crisis, caused by the complete breakdown of all pretense of effective government by the Confederation, was alone sufficient to justify the Convention's new approach to the problem. The record shows overwhelming evidence of the completeness of this breakdown and of the impossibility of amending the Articles of Confederation so as to produce any effective remedy within its framework. Besides, earlier attempts to amend the Articles had failed. Lacking a real central government, there was for example no possibility of national security through sound national defense, or sound interstate relations economically, financially or politically, much less sound relations with foreign governments. (The previous comments about the Confederation, at pages 120 and 167, are pertinent here.)

The collapse of the Confederation was so complete that in a statement in Congress on April 8, 1789, Madison referred to it as having suffered from "imbecility" and this word, and comparable terms, are found in the records repeatedly as the expression of opinion by various leaders in describing the utter collapse of the Confederation. During the Framing Convention, George Mason wrote that:

"At a time when our Government is approaching to Dissolution, when some of its Principals have been found utterly inadequate to the Purposes for which it was establish'd, & and it is evident that without some material Alterations it can not much longer subsist . . ."

(Mason's use here of the word "Principals," as it appears in the original of Madison's notes of the proceedings, seemingly referred to principles.) In 1787 in The Federalist number 30, Hamilton observed that "the government of the union has gradually dwindled into a state of decay, approaching nearly to annihilation." In 1788 in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Madison commented in this connection:

"What is the situation of this country at this moment? Is it not rapidly approaching to anarchy? Are not the bands of the Union so absolutely relaxed as almost to amount to a dissolution?"

Madison's reference to "anarchy" was echoed by Washington in February 1788 in a letter to Lafayette in which he stated:

"I will only add, as a further opinion founded on the maturest deliberation, that there is no alternative, no hope of alteration, no intermediate resting place, between the adoption of this [Constitution], and a recurrence to an unqualified state of Anarchy, with all its deplorable consequences."

Washington had declared earlier, at the close of the Framing Convention in September 1787--in his letter to the Congress conveying to them a copy of the draft Constitution--that there was at stake "perhaps our national existence." At the outset of the Convention, he wrote to Jefferson (in Paris) this grim estimate of its prospects:

"Much is expected from it by some; but little by others; and nothing by a few. That something is necessary, all will agree; for the situation of the General Governmt. (if it can be called a governmt.) is shaken to its foundation, and liable to be overset by every blast. In a word, it is at an end, and unless a remedy is soon applied, anarchy and confusion will inevitably ensue." (Emphasis added.)

In his previously-quoted "Jubilee" address of April 30, 1839, John Quincy Adams summed up the situation, which had existed prior to the adoption of the Constitution, in these words:

"The nation fell into an atrophy. The Union languished to the point of death. . . . The system was about to dissolve in its own imbecility--impotence in negotiation abroad--domestic insurrection at home, were on the point of bearing to a dishonourable grave the proclamation [in 1776] of a government founded on the rights of man . . . [when the Framing Convention met and brought forth the Constitution]: the complement to the Declaration of Independence . . ."

Another point of special interest in this regard is the fact that the Articles of Confederation were inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence because the people themselves should form their governments according to the Declaration (by means of Constitutional Conventions and Constitutions), whereas the Articles of Confederation had been approved only by the legislatures of the States and not directly by the people of each State. In The Federalist number 22, Hamilton noted this as one reason for the Confederation's infirmities or defects (which were discussed also in numbers 15-21.)

The Articles of Confederation were in reality of the nature of a treaty entered into between separate and independent States, as observed earlier (pages 120 and 167, ante). One of the chief points made by James Wilson during the debate in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention pertained to this aspect, mentioned also by Madison in his April 1787 writing: "Vices of the Political System of the United States," in which he presented various reasons why the failure of the Confederation was so complete that it permitted no remedy within its framework. Madison there stated that: ". . . it is in fact nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and of alliance, between independent and Sovereign States." He also made the point that there was no sanction to support its laws. It had, in fact, no power whatever, as we have seen previously, in relation to persons individually and no power whatever to compel the State governments to do anything--it could only request, even as to money for its support; and the States frequently flouted its requests for money. In that 1787 writing, Madison made the above-noted point that the sovereign people of each of the States had not themselves created the Confederation but only their agent, the legislature, from which he soundly concluded that the people could properly overrule their agent at any time they should see fit and replace the Confederation with some other system. This was all the more true of this unsoundly formed, futile, and hopelessly impotent pretense of a government because of the principle stated in the Declaration of Independence that, when a people's government "becomes destructive of these ends" (to make and keep secure the people's God-given, unalienable rights), they may alter, or abolish, it and create a satisfactory substitute. The Confederation provided no security whatever for these rights. Madison's list of topics among the "vices" of the existing political system, in that April 1787 writing, are enlightening (using the word "want" as meaning "lack")--as presented in his own wording:

1. Failure of the States to comply with the Constitutional requisitions.

2. Encroachments by the States on the federal authority.

3. Violations [by the States] of the law of nations and of treaties.

4. Trespasses of the States on the rights of each other.

5. Want of concert in matters where common interest requires it.

6. Want of Guaranty to the States of their Constitutions & laws against internal violence.

7. Want of sanction to the laws, and of coercion in the Government of the Confederacy.

8. Want of ratification by the people of the Articles of Confederation.

9. Multiplicity of laws in the several States.

10. Mutability of the laws of the States.

11. Injustice of the laws of the States.

Some of the contemporary criticism of The Framers has been translated unsoundly by some modern writers into the ridiculous accusation that, by framing the Constitution instead of proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation, The Framers perpetrated a coup d'etat. Nothing could be more absurd--indeed, violative of historical truth--than this charge, made with the evident purpose of belittling these leaders and undermining respect for them and their handiwork in the minds of the American people and especially the Young. Brief discussion will make obvious the absurdity of any such contention which all pertinent historical records prove to be false.

A dictionary, and the popular, definition of a coup d'dtat is: "A sudden decisive political move overthrowing an existing government." Such "overthrowing" necessarily involves either the use of force, or the threat of its use. As every competent scholar well knows, there was not even the slightest threat of this--much less the actuality--involved in the situation in 1787-1788. Instead, the Framing Convention consisted of delegates appointed, and it met, in response to a resolution of the Continental Congress of February 21, 1787--inspired by State governments, which in turn appointed these delegates. This was the result of years of public discussion of the grave need of effective action to the end of remedying the disastrous governmental situation. Furthermore, as Hamilton stressed in The Federalist number 2, this Convention produced nothing but a paper proposal: the draft of a proposed Constitution for final approval by the sovereign people of each State, if found acceptable to them. This was in keeping with the fundamental American principle, restated in The Federalist number 22 by Hamilton that:

"The fabric of American empire [the Union] ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority." (Emphasis per original.)

In number 43, Madison also discussed the point that the proposed, new Constitution would supersede the Articles of Confederation (only by consent of the people, if ratified).

The foregoing considerations were among those, in support of ratification, which were brought to the attention of the American people in various ways during the ratification debates in 1787-1788. One of the principal ways was the publication of The Federalist essays as newspaper articles, originally in New York City; also in book form in two volumes published in March and May, 1788. (The distribution of this material has been discussed earlier, pages 150-151.)

As planned all the while, The Framers took elaborate and formal steps to have their draft of a proposed Constitution properly submitted to the people of each State, through action by the Confederation Congress, in keeping with the spirit of a resolution of the Framing Convention of June 13, 1787, which expressly specified that in each State the matter should be considered by an assembly of representatives especially chosen by the people for this purpose upon recommendation by the legislature. At the close of the Convention on September 17, it adopted a resolution transmitting the draft of the proposed Constitution to Congress and reciting that the Convention considered that the draft document should be submitted by the Congress "to a Convention of delegates, chosen in each State by the People thereof, under the Recommendation of its Legislature, for their Assent and Ratification;" and that each Ratifying Convention which would approve it should notify Congress of such approval. This resolution also specified recommendations as to steps by which the Constitution, after ratification by nine States, should be put into effect. The resolution, accompanied by a copy of the proposed Constitution, was forwarded to Congress with a letter dated September 17 from George Washington, as President of the Convention. This letter reflects so accurately the high purposes and ideals and the background thinking of the members of the Convention as a group that it should be considered here in its entirety, so the full text is presented:

"WE HAVE now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that Constitution which has appeared to us the most adviseable.

"The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the corresponding executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union: but the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident--Hence results the necessity of a different organization.

"It is obviously impracticable in the foederal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all--Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was encreased by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests.

"In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each State in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected; and thus the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.

"That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every State is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interest alone been consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others; that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish."

By "one body," Washington referred to the Congress of the Confederation. By the word "consolidation," he meant effective, though partial, unification politically of the States through the federation of Republics (central and State) as provided in the Constitution. With regard to his reference to giving up "a share of liberty to preserve the rest," attention is called to Paragraph 8 of Principle 3 in Part I.

The lofty tone and high-principled approach which is reflected by the above communication on behalf of the Convention to the Congress--both being representative bodies--was in keeping with the characteristic and profoundly moving plea made by Washington to the Framing Convention to counter the prevailing gloom at one point during their sessions, as reported by Gouverneur Morris in an oration on the occasion of Washington's death:

"'It is (said he) too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.'--this was the patriotic voice of WASHINGTON; and this the constant tenor of his conduct." (Emphasis added.)

The Congress considered the above-mentioned letter, resolution and draft of the proposed Constitution for several days and then adopted a resolution on September 28 providing that they "be transmitted to the several legislatures in Order to be submitted to a convention of Delegates chosen in each state by the people thereof in conformity to the resolves of the Convention made and provided in that case." The legislature of each State acted in accordance with these resolutions and the draft of the proposed Constitution was submitted to a Constitutional Convention in each State chosen by the people for the sole and express purpose of considering and then, on behalf of the people of the State, ratifying or rejecting it. The Constitution ceased to be a mere paper proposal and became binding governmentally only when approved by nine States and only as to those which so approved it. (North Carolina acted in 1789, Rhode Island in 1790.)

Never before in all history in any other country had any such steps--in part, or as a whole--been taken to insure the people's consent to the establishment of their form of government. The foregoing summary of events presents irrefutable evidence of an unprecedented performance by all public servants involved--including the members of the Framing and Ratifying Conventions--acting strictly in accordance with their limited duty as the agents of the people, to the end of enabling the sovereign people of each of the States to exercise to the full freedom of choice in forming a central government for the greater security of their unalienable rights, in keeping with the ideals, goals and principles of the Declaration of Independence as summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution. Nothing in history even matches, much less surpasses, this record when judged by the severest standards of integrity and all other pertinent tests of the highest type.

In the light of the foregoing discussion, it is self-evident that any one who asserts that The Framers perpetrated a coup d'dtat thereby flouts historical truth and exhibits lack of either scholarly competence, or intellectual integrity. If one thus culpable be a professional educator, such misconduct also involves betrayal of the duty aspect of Academic Freedom-Responsibility, which includes above all else the above-mentioned elements: scholarly competence and intellectual integrity; and, furthermore, it robs the affected students of their right to freedom of choice based upon correct information and instruction which is sound in every respect. Any such unjust attempt to defame The Framers, or others among The Founders, amounts moreover to character assassination--a grossly anti-moral offense which is as cowardly as it is indefensible when perpetrated against our forefathers, unable to refute with the truth.

The Founders are also sometimes attacked as having been crass money-seekers at the expense of the people's liberties, which historical records prove to be false. This topic merits extended discussion but lack of space requires brevity in the following comments about it.