Reprinted from Consortium News
This notion of the Framers as enemies of an activist national government is untrue but has become a popular meme as promoted through the vast right-wing media and accepted by the timid mainstream press, which is unwilling to fight for an accurate portrayal of what the Federalists who wrote the Constitution intended.
Plus, the Right's fake interpretation of the Constitution cannot be disentangled from the disgraceful history of slavery, segregation and today's renewed efforts to prevent black and brown Americans from voting.
Indeed, race has always been an intrinsic element in the American Right's history, which can be roughly divided into four eras: the pre-Confederate period from 1787 to 1860 when slave owners first opposed and then sought to constrain the Constitution, viewing it as a threat to slavery; the actual Confederacy from 1861 to 1865 when the South took up arms against the Constitution in defense of slavery; the post-Confederate era from 1866 to the 1960s when white racists violently thwarted constitutional protections for blacks; and the neo-Confederate era from 1969 to today when these racists jumped to the Republican Party in an attempt to extend white supremacy behind various code words and subterfuges.
It is true that the racist Right has often moved in tandem with the wealthy-elite Right, which has regarded the regulatory powers of the federal government as a threat to the ability of rich industrialists to operate corporations and to control the economy without regard to the larger public good.
But the historical reality is that both the white supremacists and the anti-regulatory corporatists viewed the Constitution as a threat to their interests because of its creation of a powerful central government that was given a mandate to "promote the general Welfare." The Constitution was far from perfect and its authors did not always have the noblest of motives, but it created a structure that could reflect the popular will and be used for the nation's good.
The key Framers of the Constitution -- the likes of George Washington, James Madison (who then was a protege of Washington) Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris (who wrote the famous Preamble) -- were what might be called "pragmatic nationalists" determined to do what was necessary to protect the nation's fragile independence and to advance the country's economic development.
In 1787, the Framers' principal concern was that the existing government structure -- the Articles of Confederation -- was unworkable because it embraced a system of strong states, deemed "sovereign" and "independent," and a weak central government called simply a "league of friendship" among the states.
The Constitution flipped that relationship, making federal law supreme and seeking to make the states "subordinately useful," in Madison's evocative phrase. Though the Constitution did make implicit concessions to slavery in order to persuade southern delegates to sign on, the shift toward federal dominance was immediately perceived as an eventual threat to slavery.
Fearing for Slavery
Key Anti-Federalists, such as Virginia's Patrick Henry and George Mason, argued that over time the more industrial North would grow dominant and insist on the elimination of slavery. And, it was known that a number of key participants at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, were strongly opposed to slavery and that Washington was troubled by human bondage though a slaveholder himself.
So, Henry and Mason cited the threat to slavery as their hot-button argument against ratification. In 1788, Henry warned his fellow Virginians that if they approved the Constitution, it would put their massive capital investment in slaves in jeopardy. Imagining the possibility of a federal tax on slaveholding, Henry declared, "They'll free your niggers!"
It is a testament to how we have whitewashed U.S. history on the evils of slavery that Patrick Henry is far better known for his declaration before the Revolution, "Give me liberty or give me death!" than his equally pithy warning, "They'll free your niggers!"
Similarly, George Mason, Henry's collaborator in trying to scare Virginia's slaveholders into opposing the Constitution, is recalled as an instigator of the Bill of Rights, rather than as a defender of slavery. A key "freedom" that Henry and Mason fretted about was the "freedom" of plantation owners to possess other human beings as property.
As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in their 2010 book, Madison and Jefferson, Henry and Mason argued that "slavery, the source of Virginia's tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected." Besides the worry about how the federal government might tax slave-ownership, there was the fear that the President -- as commander in chief -- might "federalize" the state militias and emancipate the slaves.