FROM THE GREAT REHEARSAL: THE STORY OF MAKING AND RATIFYING THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES
by Carl van Doren
The most momentous chapter in American history is the story of the making and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution has so long been rooted so deeply in American life--or American life rooted so deeply in it--that the drama of its origins is often overlooked. Even historical novelists, who hunt everywhere for memorable events to celebrate, have hardly touched the event without which there would have been a United States very different from the one that now exists; or might have been no United States at all.
The Constitution was made and ratified during one of the two periods of American history in which the American people have been most occupied with fundamental principles of government. In 1787 the problem was how the people could learn to think nationally, not locally, about the United States. In 1948 the problem is how the people can learn to think internationally, not nationally, about the United Nations.
The present problem has turned many minds back to 1787 in search of a historic parallel to serve as an example. In that year the former colonies of Great Britain, now independent states, were recovering from a war. During the war they had been drawn together by a common danger, but afterward they had sagged apart. The Confederation under which they lived was not so much a government as a league of states, in which the individual states retained a large part of their sovereignty. Congress was not a general legislature, but a diplomatic assembly, in which the states had equal votes. There was no general executive, no general judiciary. Congress could raise money only by asking the states to contribute their quotas for Confederation expenses. The Confederation government did not operate directly on the people of the United States, but only through the states themselves, bristling with sovereignty or absorbed in their own concerns.
The situation was, in any number of respects which can be seen at a glance, much like that of the sovereign states of the United Nations in 1948.
In 1787 the Federal Convention, called to alter and amend the Articles of Confederation, boldly created a federal government which should have authority and power to regulate federal affairs, while leaving local affairs to the states. This was no longer a league. It was a government. And many citizens of many nations are now convinced that only by some similar alteration of the Charter of the United Nations can the United Nations develop from a league of states into a government capable of securing the peace and welfare of the world.
The parallel between 1787 and 1948 is naturally not exact. Even if it were, 1787 would have no authority over 1948. Each age must make or keep its own government and determine its own future. Nor do those citizens of the world who in 1948 desire to see a federal world government created assume that the process would have to follow the example of the United States of 1787 in the details of the new government. The Federal Convention did not follow any single example. Neither should a General Conference of the United Nations be expected to.
But it is impossible to read the story of the making and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States without finding there all the arguments in favor of a general government for the United Nations, as well as all the arguments now raised in opposition to it.
The opponents of the Constitution argued in 1787 that the United States, ten times larger in extent than any federation in previous history, was too large ever to be held together by a common government. The three natural sections of the country, Northern, Middle, and Southern, it was argued, might be formed into three federations which could maintain and promote the interests of those sections. But any government strong enough to dominate the whole country, it was insisted, would have to be a tyrannical super-state, supported by a standing army in a fortified capital which would have no respect for the liberty of individual citizens.
The supporters of the proposed Constitution argued that the larger a federation was, the less chance there must be that one part of it could dominate the others. To set up three regional federations was to set up political and economic rivalries which did not need to exist, because they did not represent essential conflicts in the interests of the people. The central government of a single great federation would have been designed by the people, through their representatives, would be administered by officers the people had chosen, and would be subject to control or change at the will of the people.
The opponents of the Constitution insisted that the smaller states would be swallowed up by the United States; the supporters pointed out that a small state is always likely to be swallowed up by a hostile state, but that it finds security and liberty in voluntary union with friendly states. The opponents of the Constitution declared that the larger states would disturb the United States by their powerful contentions; the supporters replied that those contentions were sure to disturb the continent if the larger states were not united, much less sure to do it if they were united and so could be expected to arrive at peaceable agreements.
The opponents of the Constitution were convinced that the people of the individual states could be protected only by their states armed with full, or at least substantial, sovereignty. The supporters of the Constitution knew that conflicting sovereignties had been the causes of most wars, in which the people have regularly suffered.
The opponents of the Constitution in 1787 could talk only of the difficulties of forming a new government. The supporters of the Constitution, aware of the dangers facing the Confederation, demanded that a new government be attempted, no matter what the difficulties.
In this respect those antagonists were precisely like the enemies and the friends of world federation in 1948, now when it is obvious that no difficulty in the way of a world government can match the danger of a world without it.
The story as here told brings those older arguments and counter-arguments once more to the light. The supporters of the Constitution in 1787 knew that they were planning a government only for the United States, but they believed their experiment would instruct and benefit all mankind. Their undertaking might be, though of course no one of them ever used the term, a rehearsal for the federal governments of the future.
Carl van Doren (1885-1950), author, editor and critic, was born in Illinois. Van Doren taught English at Columbia University, was Headmaster of the Brearley School in New York City, then became a literary editor. His writing ranged through surveys of literature to novels, biography and criticism. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Benjamin Franklin.
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