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Forgotten Constitutional Founders

book cover imageAn Incautious Man: The Life of Gouverneur Morris
by Melanie Miller (ISI Books 2008, $25.00).

Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin
by Bill Kauffman (ISI Books 2008, $25.00).

Gerald J. Russello

Even after more than two centuries, the story of the Constitution remains enthralling. Fifty-five men—average age, forty-two—met behind locked doors, their deliberations secret, to create a governing document. Their authority to do so was, to say the least, unclear. Most of the new states had sent their delegates merely to revise the Articles of Confederation, under which the thirteen former colonies had been governed during the War for Independence, and not to create a new government.

For the eighteenth-century gentleman, being remembered for creating a new nation was a legacy worth risking one’s life, fortune, and sacred honor. Yet, for some of them, that eternal memory was to be elusive. Of the delegates, whom Thomas Jefferson (himself a member in good standing of the “founders’ club,” though he was not at Philadelphia) called “demigods,” only perhaps a dozen have remained in our national imagination. There is the inventive Benjamin Franklin, the solid George Washington, presiding nobly and silently over the deliberations, and of course the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison.

But who now remembers Maryland’s Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, for example, or Richardson Davie of North Carolina? The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is returning attention to these so-called forgotten founders. In addition to Gouverneur Morris of New York, the Marylander Luther Martin, and war hero Nathanael Greene, more are planned, including biographies of Oliver Ellsworth, John Witherspoon, Charles Carroll, James Otis, and John Dickinson. These short studies, intended for the general reader, should be placed alongside the biographies of the big five—Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Franklin.

Martin and Morris illustrate the founders’ different minds. Martin (1748–1826) was difficult at best during the height of his brilliant career as a lawyer, serving, among other things, as Attorney General of Maryland for almost thirty years and as one of Aaron Burr’s defense lawyers, but by the end he was a cantankerous, impoverished drunken mess. In a vignette that speaks volumes about eighteenth-century life, the Maryland bar levied a tax on its members to support Martin in his destitute old age, in recognition of his services.

Morris (1752–1816) could not have been more different. A landholder and speculator, his achievements ranged from designing Manhattan’s street grid to setting the groundwork for the Erie Canal. At the Convention, he spoke a remarkable 173 times, more than any other delegate, and was considered next to Madison and James Wilson perhaps the most influential voice in the Convention. Afterward, he went on to have a successful and eventful career as, among other things, Jefferson’s ambassador to France during the Terror.

Martin was one of the losers at the Convention, and his speeches during the Convention still read full of ire; in his notes to the Convention, Madison described one of Martin’s tirades as “delivered with much diffuseness and considerable vehemence.” Martin raged against almost every aspect of the proposed national compact. Against the six-year terms of Senators, he said, “If [a Senator] has a family, he will take his family with him to the place where the government shall be fixed, that will become his home, and . . . his future views and prospects will center in the favours and emoluments . . . of the general government.” Paging Senator . . . well, almost any of them. In the end, Martin’s eloquence won few victories, the most important being securing the equal rights of the smaller states in the Senate. After the Convention, Martin became an “Anti-Federalist,” the unfortunately named (as they were, after their fashion, actually supporters of a decentralized federation) losers during the fight for ratification.

Martin’s argument was with those who wished to scrap the Articles of Confederation in favor of a document that minimized local rights and threatened individual liberties. In the end he walked out of the Convention because of his concern for the states and individual liberties. The quotes Kauffman unearths by Madison and others about their interest in abolishing the states and making them provinces of a central government makes you glad Martin was there to hold them off (at least for a while, some might say). But these positions did not endear him to his victorious contemporaries or to later historians, especially progressives for whom the argument of men like Martin were beyond the pale.

Morris, on the other hand, supported many of the goals of the new Constitution. He was not opposed to the increased national presence the constitution promised, seeing in it an opportunity for economic growth and stability. Indeed, so he was so well-regarded that he was appointed to the committee responsible for drafting the actual language of the Constitution, which is largely credited to him. Unlike Martin, who opposed the Federalists tooth and nail, Morris was a Federalist but, as Miller describes, this was to seal his fate. After the election of 1800, the Federalists were voted out and eventually disappeared as a political force. Morris was seen as too aligned with them; his opposition to the War of 1812 and support for secession (of New England!) did not help.

Biographies like these cause us to rethink the founding, and question a “Whig” history that leads inexorably to a Philadelphian Olympus. Capable, talented patriots like Martin did not think the Constitution perfect, nor did Morris see the nation as permanent when liberties were threatened. The path that history took through these arguments is illuminating still today, especially for conservatives, who often fit the stereotype of those who support the status quo simply because it is there. ISI’s serial retelling of the founding years brings to light some hard questions for conservatives who believe that the Constitution settled the important questions of governance in favor of federalism, localism, and the protection of liberty against big government.

Gerald J. Russello is Editor of The University Bookman.

Posted: June 2, 2009

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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