Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Westphalia: Church Politics Adjusts Boundaries, Then Everything Changes
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation-state.

Lumpers, Splitters and Technicians: The Framers of the American Constitution
Half a dozen distinguished colonists came to believe the thirteen American colonies could not survive unless they banded together. Eight years of bitter experiences during the Revolutionary War had taught them they must unite. We might call them lumpers.

.........................Constitutions: So What's So Good About Ours; Why Do Europe's Fail?

First of all, let's compare Philadelphia's Constitutional beginnings with Boston's. Philadelphia had a Constitution which grew out of the Revolution, which was forced upon us by Admiral Howe's punishing attack by a huge British fleet. Philadelphia was dominantly a Quaker pacifist city. Annoyed by British mercantilism it may have been, but it was far from completely hostile to the mother country. Boston, by contrast, could have been described as starting the war. It had the Boston tea party, the Boston massacre, and the hidden gunpowder before the British tried to restore order. Boston and Philadelphia both had grievances, but nobody challenges the statement that the colonists (and the smugglers) started the war which led to the Constitution, just as French revolutionaries attacked the French aristocracy, first. Boston and Paris started their wars, Philadelphia was attacked. Furthermore, Philadelphia was pacifist Quaker, and gave up political power rather than resist. Boston quickly gave up "Taxation without representation" in order to fight for Independence with allies; Philadelphia was still filled with Tory sympathizers after the war was over.

But although Philadelphia agonized about Independence, they took it seriously once they adopted the goal. Even decades later, they endured a Civil war for the Union, while Boston sent us Abolitionists to stir up trouble for the South. On a smaller scale, during the War of 1812 it was New England that hoped to invade Canada, while Philadelphia was harboring the French and building French buildings. Our Constitution has endured for over two centuries with only minor amendments. By contrast, the European Republics seems about to fail after uniting many small states into one big one. We have much the same heredity. Whatever needs to be changed, by Europeans, before someone gets blown up?

The first thing to acknowledge is that America's Constitution may be the unusual one, having survived longest. Other Constitutions backslid after a few years. No doubt we wanted success more; we worked harder at it. At first, we were very suspicious of any unification of nations at all, as eloquently proclaimed by Patrick Henry, the Lees and Mason. But John Dickinson also wasn't sure it was a good idea at first either, Ben Franklin was a dedicated Englishman right up to the edge of the Revolution, and the Penman of the Constitution, Gouverneur Morris, disavowed his own product during the War of 1812. James Madison the Virginia scholar of constitutions based his premise on the intrinsic evil of everyone, in the phrase. "If all men were angels, there would be no need of Constitutions." The idea behind having a Revolution was Patrick Henry's declaration, "Give me Liberty or give me death." He distrusted all centralized rule and rulers. Not only was George III corrupt, but most men in power soon became that way. All governments were evil, and the evidence seemed abundant. George Washington devised the best reply he could find. Over and over, he repeated his sorrowful experience, "If you are strong, people leave you alone." Unify, or die. Since Washington had led a revolution against Kings overcoming almost hopeless odds, he was offered anything he wanted and refused to take it. It was hard to believe he wasn't sincere. Furthermore, he was a rich slave-holder. He knew he must lead because no one else had the credentials to be trusted by both North and South. The largest colony was Virginia, which gallantly fought the war but almost drew back from the Constitution. Perhaps all this hesitancy and reluctance was the secret of our success. Perhaps we expected little to come of it unless we were vigilant. So we were vigilant. Our Constitution holds together because it is a permanent balance between those who want to go ahead and those who like what they have, and we can always change either one before they do much damage, but we can keep them long enough to gain a little.

Robert Morris was as rich as they come, too, so he could be trusted by movers and shakers. He knew his countrymen, back from the days when they almost killed him in the Battle of Wilson's House on Third Street, near the Quaker Meeting at Fourth and Arch, no less. He knew you didn't win wars without gunpowder, so the way to remain strong was to find a way to force, trick or bribe the component states to pay their taxes. At the Constitutional Convention, he talked more than anyone, said hardly anything once he got a workable system, and then almost didn't sign it until he was convinced it would work. Even after the document was ratified, Ben Franklin who had risen from poverty three separate times to be one of the richest men in town, who had been both the author of the most significant features of the Constitutional product and the author of its most significant compromises, has been revealed as a doubter even after giving it his best, commenting to Mrs Powell that it was, "A republic, if you can keep it." He had proposed a Union at the Albany Conference in 1745, but after forty-four years he still wasn't sure it would work. Without these four men and their friends, it probably wouldn't have. And then there was John Dickinson, Governor of Pennsylvania and Delaware simultaneously, who pulled James Madison aside in Independence Hall, and said, "Do you want a nation, or don't you?" when it came time to compromise on giving two senators apiece to both the small and large states. And don't forget Patrick Henry, whose role in the Bill of Rights was vital. This was a compromise; you need cooperation on both sides to achieve an enduring compromise. Neither side must be allowed to achieve a total victory, lest your Constitution be short-lived like the others. From the beginning, our Constitution was as weak as anyone could make it -- and still survive. The Founding Fathers were idealists who had almost lost a war. There was only one thing worse than winning a war, and that was to lose one.

 

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