About the middle of the morning on Monday, the sixth of May 1776, 45 men assembled at the Capitol in Williamsburg, Virginia. They were members of the House of Burgesses, elected back in the summer of 1774. Having entered the chamber of the House, they sat, silent. Elsewhere in the Capitol there were no signs of the royal governor or his council. Soon the Burgesses got up and went back outside. There they met others who, joining them, reentered the chamber, this time as delegates to the fifth and final Virginia revolutionary convention; this time carrying instructions from the people in their home counties calling on them to instruct Virginia’s delegates in the Continental Congress to declare American independence and to draft a constitution for Virginia.
While such a launching, this little-remembered ritual, may not seem so much to many in the thrall of the apotheosis of the 1787 Constitution, it remains a bright metaphor to illustrate the seamlessness of the transition from colony to country in America generally and in Virginia. This vivid drama of a departure joined with that of a prospect shows how far these Virginians had come since April 1774, even as it puts in relief just how significant the next two months, May and June of 1776, would be, culminating as they did with Virginia declaring its independence, establishing a bill of rights, and, two weeks later, completing a written constitution.
When ordinary Americans reflect at all on their political tradition, the Gettysburg Address invariably stands at the center of those thoughts. Yet there is reason to doubt whether it ought to occupy the same rarified air as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist, or other celebrated documents in American history. The Gettysburg Address has displaced these other works from their centrality in the American mind, but it shouldn’t.
McCraw uses the immigrant experience to explain in part the development of a national perspective (see here and here for the 1st 2 installments in this series). Being originally outsiders, immigrants could see the forest for the trees while many, if not most of their native born friends were freighted with the prejudices of particular states. (363) It was this, combined with Hamilton’s and Gallatin’s natural brilliance, McCraw contends “that enabled them to envision and then to execute the responsible deployment of rootless capital in the forging of a new economy.” (326)
Looked at from this perspective, McCraw understandably connects only partially to his subjects pre-American experiences, and then more for Hamilton than Gallatin. Much of the former’s sense of urgency and impatience stemmed, as he notes, from Hamilton’s youth on the island of Nevis: “He knew from his boyhood that things could fall apart on short notice.” (49)
The Caribbean was not the most stable region politically. Hamilton’s own French Huguenot background through his mother, and his father’s origins in Scotland, testify to the imperial seesaw that characterized the geopolitical reality of the islands. Yet for Gallatin, he misses a similar opportunity.
This next edition of Liberty Law Talk is a discussion with John Vile about his new book, The Writing and Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: Practical Virtue in Action. Our discussion, chronologically and philosophically, retraces the dramatic story of the Founders' Constitution. In four parts, we talk about the failing of the Articles of Confederation, the need to reground republican government on constraints and diffusions of power given the governing weaknesses of many state governments, arguments and contests among major and lesser known figures at the Philadelphia Convention, and the often overlooked state ratifying conventions where the Constitution had to…
How did the following clause of the Constitution–Article I, Section 8, clause 1— come into being? “The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the Unites States.” And how did the common defense clause and the general welfare clause make their way into the Preamble of the Constitution?
The general welfare clause makes its first appearance in Article III of the Articles of Confederation of 1781. The same is true for the common defense clause. These two clauses have been linked together from the very beginning in the quest for an expression of the appropriate role of the federal government.