The US Constitution in Context: Part II


The movement was always centered in the upper middle class and aristocracy, bourgeois in its demands and concerns: taxation that infringed upon the capitalist endeavors of the merchant class and their aristocratic investors, and high-handed dictates that insulted the honor and autonomy of classes that saw themselves as rulers by right of a continent that was just then being opened to imperial market exploitation. The Founders, as they are called, did not envision a state run for or by the poor, workers or for the betterment and empowerment of the marginalized and exploited. They wanted to do for themselves with their own systems of power and privilege what the British had done by imperial fiat. With 1 out of every 4 Englishmen now living in the colonies, and the vast amount of market growth and capitalist earning potential also located in the states, there seemed to be nothing but downsides to remaining united with crown.2 The United Kingdom and its imperial prerogative was a middleman the colonial power structure decided it could no longer afford.

The War that followed was led and financed by the aristocracy and the merchant class that so desperately wanted to join that class. With appeals to tropes of imperial brutality, patriotism, promises of land, enterprise and greater local control these privileged elites were able to bring the working and agrarian classes into the movement as fodder for the brutal grinding Continental style of warfare that would come to full horrible flower in the Napoleonic wars and the early engagements of the American Civil War. Erroneous promises of land and free agency, as well as intimidation, economic pressure and manipulation of the strained relations between tribal nations, also brought the indigenous population into the war on both sides. Neither the British nor Americans would hold up their end of the bargain though. The war was won by the American aristocracy over the British Imperial state on the backs of those who had no stake in the coming system of power and privilege and with a generous bit of assistance from the abominably cruel and brutal French Monarchy. The soldiers fought proudly and many organized and protested what they saw as injustices being perpetrated against the colonies by the British. What is lost though is the constant battle being waged by the destitute and the marginalized against the powerful and wealthy in the colonies themselves. With the British gone a new system would have to take their place, and that system would not necessarily be an improvement over the old system. Many fought for a new way of life in the colonies, a “new birth of freedom” if you will, but the war in the end would lead not to this potential but to “the rule of property, free markets, and a gilded elite of landowners, merchants, and bankers.”3

This is the context in which the US Constitution was crafted. But Constitutional Federalism was not a fait accompli; the interests of the various states, and those who held sway in them, were seen to be best served by a looser Confederation that diffused authority and control away from a central governing system familiar to the colonies through their experience of colonial rule from Great Britain. Article 4 of the Confederation charter made clear that this system would benefit the entrenched powers and classes:  “the free inhabitants of each of these States, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several States”.4 Property ownership and economic power became the basis of rights and privileges and set up an insurmountable wall keeping much of the people from true political influence and power. This point of view would be cemented, albeit in a more palatable language, in the Federal Constitution and system that would replace the articles of Confederation.The state sovereignty envisioned by the crafters of the Articles of Confederation would not be sufficient to maintain the sort of control the aristocracy and merchants desired. The lack of taxation powers, a military limited by the opposing interests of the various states, and especially the proliferation of debt held by the states, and of course their wealthy creditors, would be the death knell of this form of union. The debt held by the creditors of the states was an especially powerful lever used against Confederated authority. The various states were responsible for the debts accrued during wartime, but such an arrangement would complicate attempts by Federalists to establish a more powerful central authority that was allied with (and therefore to a certain degree beholden to) wealthy creditors.  A new constitution would allow the government to take on debt of the states, and work directly with the monied powers that controlled the debts of the states, and distribute it onto the working people and farmers of the nation through taxation and penalties.


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