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History has shown that the form of government which emerged out of the American Revolution was by no means perfect, but to recognize this does not diminish the importance of what was achieved as a result of the Constitutional Convention. Instead, it allows one to appreciate the disruptive and groundbreaking nature of the compromise government established by the various delegates while realizing how much it represents a continuity with the past. By examining Berkin's 2002 account of the creation of the American Constitution in her book A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution alongside Middlekauff's 2005 study The Glorious Cause, one is able to better appreciate the process and goals that went into the creation of the American Constitution, and how the problems that existed at its creation continue to plague the country to this day.
Before beginning this discussion of the Constitutional Convention and its details, it is necessary to point out some rather uncomfortable details regarding the social context of the time, if only to approach this crucial period of American history with a clear, level-headed perspective. Essentially, it is crucial to point out that the American Revolution, and the newly-created political organization that would follow it, was orchestrated entirely towards the benefit of rich, white men. Berkin (2002) actually hints at this fact in the first chapter of her book, when she mentions that "political leaders everywhere feared there was little cause to celebrate" before going on to say that "these men understood that something had gone terribly wrong" (Berkin, 2002, p. 11). While "political leaders" is a nice euphemism, after a few more sentences it becomes clear that everyone under discussion is a male, and the high esteem these men held themselves in is evidenced by the fact that Thomas Jefferson called them a group of "demi-gods" (Berkin, 2002, p. 48). While other groups have undoubtedly benefited from the United States Constitution over the years, these benefits have been incidental, rather than intentional, and in fact, in many cases the rights now afforded to minorities by the Constitution were only won after a hard-fought social and political battle. This is not to condemn that founders of the United States for their role in maintaining patriarchy, but rather to note the importance of patriarchy in the establishment of the United States.
The American Revolution began for a whole complex of reasons, but two of the most central were the issue of taxation without representation and the erosion of civil liberties felt by the colonists. While colonists of all stripes likely felt the negative effects of these issues, because men controlled the vast majority of wealth and property, it was men who felt these impacts most directly. When taxes went up, men, as the only members of society allowed to easily and frequently accumulate wealth and own property, felt it directly. When British soldiers were quartered in colonial homes, it was men who owned those homes, and thus felt this intrusion as an intrusion on their authority and autonomy. Recognizing this is important because it reveals something essential about the American Revolution that sets it apart from the revolutions that would follow, such as occurred in France, Russia, or China.
Namely, the American Revolution was not oriented towards the production of a more equitable society, but rather towards removing whatever barriers of title or nobility that might have previously kept white men from reaching the highest social classes. This is firstly evidenced by the fact that the so-called "founding fathers" were almost exclusively members of the upper classes already; George Washington, whose "interest in war lay in the opportunities it offered for honorable and gallant action" regardless of the cause, owned a massive plantation in Virginia, and, like his fellow founding fathers James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, was born into the economic elite, never experiencing what life was actually like for the vast majority of poor colonists or enslaved blacks (Middlekauff, 2005, p. 9). It is worth pointing out that of these men, John Adams was the only one who refused to benefit from slave labor, and although it is common to hear about how much Washington or Jefferson "struggled" with the idea of slavery, the fact remains that for their entire lives, both men kept other human beings imprisoned so that they could become richer off of their enforced labor.
This is all a way of introducing the Constitutional Convention itself, because it is necessary to begin the investigation of this notable process without any inaccurate notions about the founders' intentions, goals, or proclivities. Although, as hinted at above, there were some delegates and statesmen opposed to certain elements of white male privilege, such as the institution of slavery, the American Revolution, the short-lived Articles of Confederation, and the eventual Constitution did not, and were never meant to, truly challenge white male dominance. Instead, they were designed to institute a kind of Enlightenment-inspired, secular system wherein white men could gain wealth and power regardless of their religious or political opinions. In a way, then, the Revolution, far from dismantling the historical structures of oppression and disenfranchisement, merely legitimized them by removing any notion of divine or noble right to rule and replacing it with the rhetoric of freedom and liberty. Thus, the goal of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention was to ensure the power and wealth of these rich white men, even if none of those present were honest enough to recognize that this was the case. Once again, this is crucial to recognize because it allows one to address the Constitutional Convention without the sense of awe or respect that so frequently accompanies histories of the process.
Unfortunately, Berkin's account of the creation of the American Constitution suffers from this same sense of awe and respect. Where Middlekauff's title The Glorious Cause is at times ironic, because his account of the Revolution and its aftermath manages to highlight some of the less-flattering aspects of the process, Berkin's view of the American Constitution as A Brilliant Solution contains no such irony. For example, Berkin somehow manages to consider the Constitution as originally framed a brilliant solution, despite the fact that women were not considered citizens and slaves were counted as three-fifths of a (non-voting) person (Berkin, 2002, p. 113). When delegates debated the "equality of suffrage" at the Constitutional Convention, they were debating whether or not legislative votes should be apportioned to the states equally or by population, and not whether or not every individual was due an equal vote (Berkin, 2002, p. 103). At this point apologists for the founders tend to argue that criticizing the original Constitution for its lack of rights for women and blacks is to engage in a kind of presentist argument that does not take into account the limitations of the historical context, but there are a few important facts that obliterate this defense of the Constitution's "brilliance."
To defend the Constitutional Convention, and thus the founders, on the grounds that it represented some kind of brilliant compromise in spite of its obvious failings is to argue that historical context and social standards meant that it would have been utterly impossible for the assembled white men to ensure that their new nation granted equal rights to all people, regardless of gender or skin color. This is revealed to be nothing more than bilge when one considers that John Adams was able to get slavery largely outlawed in Massachusetts prior to the Convention, and that Columbia, the original personification of America, was a woman representing freedom and liberty. The fact that there were notable abolitionists and suffragists at the time of the Convention, even if they were in the minority, means both that it was ethically reprehensible for the founders to restrict full citizenship to property-owning white men, and furthermore, that the delegates cared more about maintaining their own power than establishing a genuinely equal society.
Berkin's account of the Constitutional Convention is sometimes so frustrating because she seems on the verge of acknowledging the actual motivations and goals behind all of the flowery rhetoric of freedom and liberties, but she soon retreats from discussing these realities in favor of an "objective" recounting of events. For example, early on she notes that
Few if any of the delegates questioned the class, gender, or racial bases of their privileged status, and they showed little or no discomfort when they spoke of 'equality' or 'unalienable rights' as if these were universal in a society that sustained slavery and female subordination. (Berkin, 2002, p. 50)
However, rather than consider how this lack of critical insight into their background affected the delegates deliberations and the eventual form of the Constitution, Berkin essentially excuses this lack by suggesting that, on the other hand, "if they assumed their participation in government and political decision making as a right, they also say it as an obligation," as if the fact that keeping everyone else from participating makes your participation noble and self-sacrificing (Berkin, 2002,…[continue]
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