Perhaps more important than those thrilling three words which precede it, “We the People”, are the four which follow, “of the United States.” This Constitution is forming a nation. Compare this with “the perpetual union between the states,” which the Articles of Confederation notes. A group of influential men gathered in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787 to open proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, nominating and unanimously agreeing that George Washington would be the convention’s president. Between then and September 15, when the Constitution was put to a final, unanimous roll call of states, and September 17, when the convention came to a close, the founders of the nation put forward, debated, accepted, and rejected many proposals, reaching the compromise that has become our Constitution. On Sept. 26 and 27, when the document was presented to them, Congress debated whether or not to censure the delegates for exceeding their authority by creating a new government rather than revising the Articles of Confederation as was their mandate. When the Constitution was put out to a vote of the people, its success was far from assured. Many Anti-Federalists were dismayed that the federal government had taken so much power from the states. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to rally support for the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists wrote articles favoring rejection of the Constitution. On Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, in June, 1788, making the nation official; but it was not until Virginia and New York ratified after bitter debate that the nation could truly go forward. Only under threat of treatment as a foreign nation did the thirteenth of the colonies, Rhode Island, rescind its earlier rejection and vote in favor of ratification, by two votes. The date was May 29, 1790. George Washington was already president.
In an excerpt on Salon from his book The Lovers’ Quarrel: The Two Foundings and American Political Development, Elvin Lim makes the point that the Anti-Federalist/Federalist debate over ratifying the Constitution continues in today’s political disputes. He frames it as the nation having had two Foundings. The first Founding was the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence; the second Founding was the Constitution and the formation of the nation from it. The first Founding was one of anger and revolt, and the tone of the Declaration of Independence reflects this; the second was pragmatic and compromising, reflected in the Constitution. The first founders pursued war to get their way; the second founders compromised to create a pragmatic government capable of keeping the nation together.
Lim sees the continuation of the Anti-Federalists, who promoted the rights of individual states against the federalized government the Constitution was creating, in today’s Tea Party. He begins the section excerpted with the opening words in the Tea Party Patriot founders Mark Meckler and Jenny Martin’s book, “We the People. With these three words, our nation began.” They then take a tone more reminiscent of the Revolution, “We, the people of the United States of America, felt threatened. We felt angry. We felt helpless.” The entitle their book, Tea Party Patriots: The Second American Revolution. Lim sees this as an example of how the descendants of the Anti-Federalists confuse the two foundings, using the words of the Constitution to launch a revolution against the nation which embodies it. He references Herman Cain quoting, “the Constitution, [where] there’s a section in there about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which are actually from the Declaration. He quotes Rand Paul saying the “The entire purpose of the Constitution was to limit the power the federal government had over the states,” exactly the opposite of what the Constitution in fact did, which was to assure a strong enough central government so that the nation would not disintegrate into chaos. Lim points to the Republic Party Platform of 2012 lauding the Constitution in the language of the Declaration. Lim notes similar Anti-Federalist sentiments and the confounding the two foundings throughout American history, referencing Jefferson, Calhoun, and Van Buren, among others.
I doubt very much that those who gathered in local tea party groups to participate in the movement started their first session by considering whether they stood with the first founders or the second founders, and having decided on the first, moved on to grasp what that meant for the views they should take on immigration, taxes, social issues, and the politics of the day. If Anti-Federalism has been such a prevalent strain throughout American history, it must have some genesis in the American psyche and social order. Understanding where it comes from, psychologically, as well as socially and historically, is a study unto itself.
I come down on the side of the second Founders. When we talk about our nation, we need to see it in terms of the document which established it and is its legal guiding principle. If the citizens of the nation under the Articles of Confederation were “We the People of our respective states,” citizens since the Constitution are citizens “of the United States” as a single nation. So important was this idea of what America really stood for, that our founding fathers met in Philadelphia to ensure the nation’s survival, even if it meant changing their views on state sovereignty. So important was this idea, that we fought a Civil War, “testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could long endure.” Constitutional amendments following the war further strengthened the ability of the central government to hold the nation together. It is those four words, “of the United States”, which have changed the course of a nation, and with it the course of history.