NEW YORK — The Writing of the American Constitution in 1787 was an extraordinary event, honored as the “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen and “the greatest piece of work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man” by Gladstone.
Yet as formerly authoritarian countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan begin to draw up their own constitutions and enter the world of representative government, that achievement may come to seem even more extraordinary.
The reason is that the issues with which the Founding Fathers were wrestling that hot summer were not particular to America. Instead, they are emerging as the universal dilemma of any political entity — how to assure majority rule while protecting minority rights.
For the Founding Fathers, it was the seemingly narrow question of how to satisfy both the large states — Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania — while maintaining the integrity of small states such as New Jersey and Delaware. Yet as constitutional government is applied in nations where the differences involve ethnicity or religion, the same principles apply. The “checks and balances” and compromises that made “We the People” possible have the same relevance in Iraq today.
JAMES MADISON OUTLINED the dilemma most clearly. Republican government, he noted, had a long and miserable history of failure. City-states in Ancient Greece, Rome and Renaissance Italy had tried to sustain popular government and always failed. When “the people” gained complete control, they were likely to set up a tyrant and sweep representative institutions aside. If republican government could not succeed on such a small scale, how could anyone expect it to prevail in a country stretching along the entire Eastern seaboard?
Upon further reflection, however, said Madison, what seemed to be a disadvantage might prove a blessing. “First, although unworthy men often gain sway in small communities, our larger territory may produce a sifting process whereby only the better sort of men gain national prominence. Second, as a republic embraces greater territory, the chance that any one faction may gain sway diminished. We are more likely to have majorities formed out of negotiation and compromise. Thus, the very magnitude of the task before us may ultimately work to our benefit.”
The perceived dilemma in Iraq is that it is really three cultures — the Shi’ite majority, the skilled Sunni minority, and the ethnically distinct Kurds. Yet what is government about except dealing with diverse interests? The problem of creating a constitutional government in Iraq may actually be easier than in monocultural societies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where minorities are not considered important enough to deserve recognition in the political process.
Although Madison had the clearest idea of what the Convention was about, he was by no means the most influential delegate. That title could have fallen to any number of men.
Alexander Hamilton is being touted at a current exhibition at the New-York Historical Society as “the man who made modern America” and there is some truth in that. Before Hamilton gave his famous address on July 17, the delegates were wallowed in discussion over whether the national executive should be chosen by the national legislature and whether the legislatures should be chosen by the state legislatures.
Hamilton electrified the Convention with an entirely different vision. “The executive shall have power to veto all laws passed by the legislature; direct all efforts in war and peace; make all treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; and appoint the chief officers of Finance, War, and Foreign Affairs.” We can see the American Presidency taking shape before our very eyes.
Yet Hamilton wanted the executive appointed for life. He also wanted the Senators to serve for “life or good behavior.” It was only when his ideas were winnowed by the debate process that they became recognizable in their contemporary form.
If there is one thing that emerges from viewing the Convention of 1787 as drama, it was the process of deliberation that triumphed rather than the genius of any one individual.
GEORGE WASHINGTON PRESIDED over the Convention and embodied every delegate’s conception of the national executive. Yet he was self-conscious and inarticulate in debate and spoke only once during the three months. Thomas Jefferson — who many people think wrote the document — was serving as the American ambassador in Paris, just as John Adams, whose excellent book on bicameral legislatures influenced the delegates, was at the Court of St. James.
A much larger role was played by figures who have faded from memory — Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the immortal Preamble (“We the People”) and James Wilson, the hardheaded Philadelphia lawyer who was in many ways the most modern mind at the Convention.
Ben Franklin, already perhaps the most famous man in the world, proved somewhat impractical in his ideas — particularly his suggestion that the executive work without pay in order to avoid attracting ambitious men. Yet his Olympian vision calmed the proceedings. “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God’s notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His guidance?” he told the delegates when they almost broke up in rancor in late June. And his concluding speech in September embodies the spirit of moderation that prevailed: “I consent to this Constitution because I expect none better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
The American Constitution was the work of no one man. It was the joint effort of a diverse group agreeing to resolve their differences — as Washington put it — “in calm deliberation, rather than by the sword.”
We can expect as much as the Iraqis sit down to resolve their own differences over the next few months.
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