I Wouldn’t Call the Constitution a “Secular Covenant”

By: May 23, 2011


To me, this is an interesting discussion. (And I don’t see anyone else having it.) I hope others may also think so. This gets involved, so I’ll focus  my response on your discussion of the Constitution:

You’ve said the that the Tea Party calls the Constitution, as ratified and amended, “a secular covenant by which we are all bound,” and that I appear to regard the Constitution as something else. The Constitution seems to me to be manifestly binding and obviously secular (nothing I’m saying could suggest otherwise), so I suspect there’s something about your use of “covenant” that needs to be unpacked. Is “covenant” a reference to the incontrovertible fact that the document was written via delegation and ratified via representation?

Nobody can disagree that the Constitution was “formed in an intense, elaborate national discussion that took place over four long years from 1787 to 1791.” But I do infer that we have a clear and stark disagreement over the role of democracy in both the convention and ratification, and in this regard I have a disagreement with many liberal historians too. I think the convention’s purpose, as Randolph announced in calling the meeting to order, was to redress what he called “insufficient checks” against what he was not alone in calling “the democracy.” That meant not only uprisings like Shays’s but also, as both Randolph in his opening remarks and Madison in Federalist 10 make clear, legislation (however sluggish and rare) benefiting the less propertied through foreclosure relief, loan discounts, legal-tender laws, decartelization, regulation of business, paper currency emissions, etc. Randolph’s later refusal to sign (and his flip-flip in then promoting ratification), Wilson’s arguing for direct election of the President, differences between Madison and Hamilton that led to their later split — all of these are comprehended, for me, in a debate over the right means to an end of preserving political power for the well-propertied elites who had traditionally been responsible for governing.

When it comes to ratification, I don’t think I’ve said its process universally excluded ordinary citizens, and naturally I know that the process was representative, but you’re right to suspect me of being highly doubtful that democracy was much involved, if we take “democracy” to mean what the famous founders meant when they excoriated it: representation, officeholding, and delegation without qualification by property (what the populist democrats of the day called “manhood suffrage”). There’s obviously much more detail that we could thrash out here — and in any event, I don’t think the struggle between propertied elites and populist democrats, which is what I’ve been exploring in the American founding, came down to the federalist/antifederalist fight during ratification of the Constitution. But bottom line: No, I don’t see the convention and ratification process as “authentically democratic,” either in our terms or, more significantly, in the terms of the day.

So if Tea Party “covenant” language is based on the idea that the Constitution benefited from what you’re calling authentic democracy, then you’re right: I wouldn’t call the Constitution anything as Biblically powerful as a secular covenant. I’d call it something remarkable enough, a republic — our republic — with a historically problematic relationship to democracy, worth our close consideration.

Guest Contributor William Hogeland, a frequent contributor to Salon.com and the Huffington Post, is the author of The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty and Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent: May 1 – July 4, 1776.

One Response to I Wouldn’t Call the Constitution a “Secular Covenant”

  1. Pingback: Chit Chat #2: What *Is* the Dang Constitution, Anyway? « Hysteriography

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