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 prove itself to delegates highly critical of the new powers it assumed.
Ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Virginia
The Philadelphia Convention rent Virginia’s political elite as no event ever had. Not only had Patrick Henry refused his proffered seat (he said he “smelt a rat”), but two of the three delegates who stayed through the whole Convention before finally refusing to sign were Virginians.
And not just any Virginians. Non-signer Edmund Randolph, the Old Dominion’s governor at the time, had served virtually throughout the Convention as chief advocate of the Virginia Plan, which the delegates knew as “Randolph’s Resolutions.” Perhaps even more significantly, Virginian politicos generally recognized George Mason as their state’s leading constitutional authority. He had taken the lead in drafting both the Virginia Constitution of 1776—the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world—and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first American declaration of rights. Mason refused to sign too.
Randolph explained his recusant posture by pointing to the several objections he had developed in the course of deliberations, and then saying that he intended to leave the question open until the people of his home state had an opportunity to express their sentiments. Mason, characteristically more forthright and less concerned with popular opinion, made no secret of the fact that, as James Madison put it, he “left Philada. in an exceeding ill humor indeed.”