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How the Constitution Came to Be: The Story of America [Ep. 12]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 29, 2024 3:03 am

How the Constitution Came to Be: The Story of America [Ep. 12]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 29, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the Constitution didn't just become the law of the land overnight—it took some convincing. Here to tell the story of the work that most influenced the Founders - The Federalist Papers - is Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope.

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Connecting changes everything. And we return to our American stories. Up next, another installment of our series about us, the Story of America series with Hillsdale College professor Bill McClay, author of the fantastic book Land of Hope. When the Constitution was finished, it took a massive effort on the part of the framers to make it the law of the land. Let's get into the story.

Here's Bill McClay. Okay. So the Constitution had been drafted, had been approved, but it didn't automatically take effect. Now it had to be ratified.

Ratified by the respective states. And this was not going to be easy. There was a real fear of any expansion of power, of centralized power, of national power.

And not without reason. The founders had understood this was going to be a difficult thing. But they also understood there needed to be that kind of popular approbation, that popular approval of the Constitution for it to be legitimate, for it to be accepted by the people as their ruling document. They crafted Article 7 of the Constitution with this end in view, that the Constitution would become law by the conventions of 9 of the 13 states. Why conventions?

They could have done it. The obvious, easy way to do it would be to use the state legislatures of the 13 states. Well, this was a very, very smart move on the part of the proponents of the Constitution. Conventions were different from the state legislatures. You might have some of the same people, because you would probably want to elect among the most eminent people in your state to both the legislature and the state ratification convention.

But the conventions had to be large enough to encompass lots of interest groups, lots of members. And even with some of the same people, they would act differently. They would be freer to participate in a deliberation and discussion. There would be a greater willingness to consider change if it wasn't coming from the body that was being changed.

Very, very smart. The debate that proceeded, state by state, split into roughly two camps. The Federalists, a very tightly organized group led by Madison and Hamilton and a few others, seeking the ratification of the Constitution. And the Anti-Federalists, a term that is much more used by us than was at the time.

It's a kind of grab bag of all the people who supported the existing framework over the Constitution. They had a different view of the country. The Federalists really looked towards the new United States as a nation state, able to stand proudly among the nations of the world. A magnet for foreign investment that would be able to conduct foreign policy, foreign trade. Alexander Hamilton said that America was a Hercules in the cradle.

We could be big, big, big stuff on the world stage if we had the right kind of institutions and governance, including a strong executive. The Anti-Federalists, they really preferred the notion that the Constitution should authorize, as the Articles had, a loose confederation of mostly independent states that would govern themselves as local as possible, that would not sacrifice the interests of the state for the sake of some larger national interest that often would be defined by an elite group made up of people like Hamilton and Madison and others. They were Decentralists. They were also disturbed that the Constitution makes no mention, does not begin with an invocation of God, a request for God's providence to watch over the nation, as so many of the state constitutions did. And the Constitution didn't do that.

The preamble of the Constitution, which is very beautiful, it's probably the only part of the Constitution that's beautiful, does not mention the deity. The Anti-Federalists were puzzled by this. They feared the concentration of power. They feared the loss of republicanism, the loss of self-rule, of the values associated with self-rule. They feared America turning into an empire, no less a figure than Patrick Henry, one of the great patriots of the Revolution, who gave the famous speech, give me liberty or give me death. No less a figure than Patrick Henry opposed, strongly opposed the Constitution, because, he said, it begins not with we the states, but we the people.

Why not we the states? What he feared was that America, a stronger, more unified America, would become an empire. And an empire is the antithesis of a republic.

An empire is a nation-state in which individuals are ruled over by an all-powerful central government that aggrandizes all of the power unto itself and leaves the individual states and localities without the ability to govern themselves that had been their way of life, that had been the essence of the rights of Englishmen for which they rebelled. Maybe this was giving up everything that had been important about the Revolution. These are different groups culturally to the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists were professionals, educated men, lawyers, businessmen, people who were really good at what we today would call public relations. They were really good at mounting a campaign so that even in states where the resistance to the Constitution was strong, they were able to change public opinion, turn the tide so that the ratifying conventions, which remember are distinct from the legislatures, ratifying conventions could be persuaded to vote for the Constitution. A good example of this was the state of New York. A lot of loyalists in New York, a lot of loyalist sentiment in New York, which did not translate into ardent desire to see America become a nation among nations. The debates in New York were heated, often coarse and ad hominem, but out of these debates in New York came 85 articles written by Hamilton and Madison and John Jay of New York. These are called the Federalist Papers, but they were written as newspaper articles designed to sway public opinion in New York. And let me tell you, these are very high order op-ed articles.

You wouldn't find things like this in the Washington Post or the New York Times or USA Today today at all. And you've been listening to Professor Bill Maclay of Hillsdale College tell the story of how the Constitution got made and actually how it almost didn't get made. There was serious opposition, as you were hearing from Professor Maclay. These states had different geographical concerns, commercial concerns. They were almost entirely different countries.

And here they were being pushed together and nobody less than Patrick Henry. Bring me liberty or bring me death. Well, he opposed this idea of we the people. He wanted it to be we the states. He was afraid that we'd veer from a republic, a constitutional republic, to an empire.

All of that central power would come to no good. And up in New York, there they were, the brilliant three, the brilliant triumvirate of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, penning through newspaper articles, op-eds in a sense, the Federalist Papers, making the argument for the Constitution. And by the way, Bill Maclay teaches at Hillsdale College and all of our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale where you can go to learn all the things that are good in life and all the things that are beautiful in life.

Go to to sign up for their free and terrific online courses. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of our Constitution, a part of the Story of Us, the Story of America series with Professor Bill Maclay. More after these commercial messages. Hello, I'm Dr. Michael Mosley and I want to let you know about my new immersive BBC Radio 4 podcast series, Deep Calm. It's all about how to tap into and activate a remarkable system that we all have hardwired inside of us, our relaxation response. And it's been developed to be listened to at any time you want to really unwind.

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Photo finishes. Ryan Blaney will win. The voice of NASCAR, the motor racing network. And we return to our American stories and our story of America series with Dr. Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope. When we last left off, Bill McClay was telling us about why the Federalist Papers, high order op-eds written by Hamilton J. and Madison, all supporters of ratifying the Constitution, came to be. Let's return to the story.

Here again is Professor Bill McClay. They were published under a pen name, which was a common practice, a pen name often from classical history. One of the most distinguished anti-federalist writers used the pen name of Brutus. You may remember from reading Shakespeare that Brutus was the opponent of Julius Caesar, who became the first emperor. That is the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire. The writer Brutus, in the American context, saw himself performing a similar role, resisting the transformation of the American republic into an American empire. Hamilton, Madison and J. used the pen name Publius, and I think most people would agree these 85 articles, the Federalist Papers, as we call them, constitute the best introduction to the thinking behind the framers of the Constitution.

They start right off the bat saying some very important things. Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 1, and we know now who the authors were. They weren't disclosed at the time.

They were just all under the name Publius. Hamilton said this, Good government from reflection and choice, or is it just accident and force that determines things? Let me continue with Hamilton's prose. Wow, he is saying that the whole world, and in some ways the destiny of humankind, is riding on the way that this group of people in the North American strand of the British, what was formerly British North America, to decide. It's depending on them to decide whether it's possible to create a good government based on rationality, reflection, choice, knowledge of history, knowledge of human behavior, to craft it.

Or are we forever dependent on the kind of collision of blind forces or just the eventualities of history? America is deciding this at this very moment. That's what Hamilton is saying.

It's really very powerful. And you know, it does recall for us the words of John Winthrop at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop didn't think he was establishing the United States of America. But there was this sense the colony, the plantation that he was establishing in Massachusetts Bay, was deciding something that would have an effect for the rest of the world. The rest of the world was looking or would be looking to it as an exemplar, the light of the world, the salt of the earth. That was what that colony was to be.

And here, Hamilton's not, this is strictly secular, but it's doing the same thing. It's saying that something could be brought to the dismal record of human history, of failed regimes that would provide a new way, a new path, a vision that would be reliant upon the rational capabilities and the historical knowledge of those who were framing that form of government. One of the essays that was written, Federalist No.

10, would become a great contribution to the history of political thought. It was written by Madison, who was very, very systematic in his political thinking. And it had to do with factions, the problem of factions, and how could a republican government such as the one the Constitution was proposing deal with the problem of faction. And now, faction is actually a word that's an abstract word.

It could stand for many things. It could stand for a political party, a segment within a political party, an interest group, an ideological group, a regional group. The problem is how do you have a republican form of government when you have lots of factions. These guys knew their history and they knew that every republic in the past had suffered from and had to deal with the problem of faction, things breaking down. And one of the things that all the great philosophers from Aristotle to Montesquieu had said about republican government is that it had to be small because if it got too big, you couldn't have a high degree of localism, you couldn't have face-to-face dealings. In various other ways, the people would no longer participate in their own government. I mean, in an empire, you have large bureaucracies, you have governors who are directed from central authority. You don't have the people governing themselves. So the feeling was if you're going to have a republic, it's got to be small. And that's a problem for the Americans because they want to have a republic. It's written into the Constitution, this favoring of republicanism in the states and in the states that should be added would be republican. But it was also going to be a big country right from the start.

Thirteen states. How could you maintain republican government and not have things break down into faction? So with that background, let me read to you some of Madison's brilliant analysis.

Okay. By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. There are two methods of curing the misuse of faction, the one by removing its causes, the other by controlling its effects. There are two methods of removing its causes, the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence, the other by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interests.

They could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it's worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an element without which it instantly expires. Isn't that wonderful? Liberty is to faction what air is to fire. So you want to have liberty, you're going to have faction. You're going to have conflict.

Back to Madison. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. As long as the reason of man continues fallible and he's at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.

As long as we have both reason and self-love, we'll have different passions, so we have different reasoning. And you've been listening to Professor Bill McClay of Hillsdale College, an author of Land of Hope, tell the story of how the Constitution got made and the role that the Federalist Papers played in doing so and his explanation of how the Constitution got made and the role that the Federalist Papers played in doing so and his explanation, his exploration of Federalist 10 by James Madison. Well, the words speak for themselves.

When we come back, more of Professor Bill McClay's Story of America series here on Our American Stories. That world has eaten up and spit out a lot of young and attractive guys This is the story of one of fashion's dark secrets. I was overwhelmed, like, I had never seen anything like this.

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All you can stream with Zoom or Play. And we return to Our American Stories and our Story of America series with Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope and the terrific young readers edition. When we last left off, Professor McClay was reading James Madison's brilliant writing on factions from the Federalist Papers. In his writing, Madison stated that we all have different faculties, different standings in society, and that might not be as bad as it seems. Let's continue with that reading.

Here again is Bill McClay. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.

And from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of respective proprietors ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. That's very well put. Let me restate it, though.

And obviously you can't do this, but let's just say you could. It's a thought experiment. What he's saying is that even if you equalized everything, right now, overnight, gave everybody the exact same background, the exact same economic standing, the exact same social skills, and then you start the race of life from there, almost immediately you'd find that people had different faculties, different skills, different ambitions, and the possession of these different skills would lead to different possessions of property. There are some people who can make money just by waking up in the morning, it seems, just come so naturally to them.

Then there's the rest of us who can't rub two nickels together. Some people are perfectly happy to do what's put in front of them, to do as their father did. If their father was a farmer, they're a farmer. And then there are others who are ambitious, who want to try to create different things. This will inevitably result in some people becoming richer, some people becoming poorer, and divide the society into different interests and parties.

There's always going to be inequality. Madison wasn't finished. He later describes why a republic is a better way than a direct democracy to manage facts.

Let me read what he says about it. A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, promises the cure for which we're seeking. The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are, first, the delegation of the government in the latter to a small number of citizens elected by the rest. Secondly, the greater number of citizens and greater sphere of the country over which the latter may be extended.

That latter point is what I think we are going to want to concentrate on. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it. The fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found at the same party.

The smaller the number of individuals composing it, the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority and the smaller the compass within which they're placed. The more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. So a smaller society can be more oppressive. They can concert and execute their plans of oppression more easily. Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests. You make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens. Or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other. Now what he's getting at here is, for example, some of the republics of Italy, of Renaissance Italy, Florence, Verona.

Because you had a smaller sphere, the antagonisms were more intense. You've all read Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets. They're like the Hatfields and the McCoys, the feuding Mountaineers. But you bring in other families.

You bring in seven, eight, ten other families. Then it's not going to be all about the Montagues and Capulets or the Hatfields and the McCoys. And that's exactly the principle that Madison is putting forward here.

A larger republic, which encompasses more diverse interests, will be much more likely to be able to fend off the tyranny of any one interest group. If you think of a place like South Carolina, where there's this strong dependency on slave labor, if South Carolina was an independent country, there'd be no hope of ever dislodging that institution, since the majority of voters would either be slaveholders or would be in league with white slaveholders. You extend the sphere, and you have the opportunity to be a slaveholder. You extend the sphere and include states where there is no slavery. Then you change things. This works with all kinds of economic interests.

Not all of the country involves the mining of coal or the catching of codfish off the coast of New England. So you see, it sets up conflict. Remember, the Constitution is all about conflict, but an extension of the sphere that Madison's describing is a way to ensure that no one faction is going to have dominance in perpetuity over all the others. It's a pluralistic system. It makes democracy more effective, makes self-rule more effective, by preventing the tyranny of any one particular faction.

He goes on to say... Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that where there's a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary. You can't get away with unjust or dishonorable purposes if a whole lot of other people are watching. The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular state. But we'll be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in part of the Confederacy, but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the National Councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, any other improper or wicked project would be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member, in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district than an entire state. So you get the idea that the more you divide things up, the less able any one faction is to take control of the whole. If you extend the sphere enough, there's always going to be a faction that says, wait a minute.

Paper money is bad for this or that purpose. Wait a minute. Equal division of property penalizes me, penalizes my efforts. Wait a minute. Your religious convictions are different from mine.

Get off my back. So it's another way that the Constitution slows the process of radical change. And allows different ways of life, different ways of making a living, different ways of worshiping, different ways of regarding even the role of local government to subsist and flourish. That was the genius of Federalist 10. And to do it, he had to go right in the face of the most venerable philosophers of both antiquity and modernity. I gave the example of Aristotle and Montesquieu, and there were others.

But he had to say, no, you're wrong. A republic doesn't have to be small. Actually, a republic needs to be big.

It needs to be larger in order to balance liberty with order, in order to have both the advantages of a national government, but also the advantages of local idiosyncrasies, local customs, local ways of life. So this document that Madison Hamilton and Jay were defending was really pathbreaking, in the same way that, as we saw in Federalist 1, that John Winthrop's document that's been passed down to us was pathbreaking. Now, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were not creating a Zion in the wilderness. They were not after the kind of, to be an example for the purification of the church in the world.

That was what Winthrop had in mind, not what these secular men did. They were after a structure of secular government, a charter of fundamental law that would support the ideals of liberty and self-rule, self-governance. And they were using history to protect against the poisons of history. History was the antidote to history. History was the antidote to history. They were drawing on the lessons of the past to foster a different way, a different path, to keep the virtues of republicanism, of self-rule, but to do it within the context of a stable, orderly regime that could last.

That's what the Constitution attempted to do. And a special thanks to Hillsdale College for sponsoring all of our history stories. Go to to sign up for their free and terrific courses. The Story of Us, The Story of America series with Professor Bill Maclay here on Our American Stories. Hello, I'm Dr. Michael Mosley, and I want to let you know about my new immersive BBC Radio 4 podcast series, Deep Calm. It's all about how to tap into and activate a remarkable system that we all have hardwired inside of us, our relaxation response. And it's been developed to be listened to at any time you want to really unwind. I hope you'll listen wherever you get your BBC podcast.

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