A paper for my students:

My students recently wrote a five paragraph essay on this question:

Why is the Constitution a document of compromises?

And after they read it, I realized that they probably needed to see a model of what such a paper might look like, given the outline I’d originally suggested to them.  Writing such things is hard, especially when I’d spent a week in class — grilling them not about the paper, but about the much larger question of what is government for? (i.e., what’s it supposed to do?)

So, this evening, after I graded the first batch, I figured it was time to try writing my own.  It’s below the fold.

The delegates who met to rewrite the Articles of Confederation in 1787 in Philadelphia came with many philosophical ideas about what a government was for.  They came prepared with a range of ideas about what government was for.  A few had read the English Magna Carta of 1215 AD, which represented a first major effort to limit the power of kings.  All had read the English Bill of Rights, granted by William and Mary in 1689.  In part, the denial of these rights to American colonists had sparked the American Revolution.  Some but not all had read John Locke’s 1690 Two Treatises on Government. Those literate in French had read Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748.  All 55 delegates had some ideas about what the new government would become. Almost none of those ideas were completely compatible with one another. They would have to compromise.

Most of the delegates from the 13 States agreed that the new government should be Federal— that the central government should be strong, but also permit the sovereign powers of the states to survive. Large states wanted power shared according to population — with Virginia and New York thus dominating the new government. Yet smaller states refused to yield their power, arguing for equal representation for each state.  Roger Sherman of Connecticut successfully brokered the so-called Great Compromise, which divided the legislative powers of the federal government between a lower House of Representatives where population was the governing factor; and a Senate where each state had an equal voice in decision-making.  Sherman’s compromise was partly based on Locke’s ideals for a perfect English Parliament.

Locke’s ideas about personal freedom were kept out of the Constitution, however. Although Northern delegates argued with Southern colleagues about slavery in the United States, a series of painful concessions kept the Southern states in the new nation.  Each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a free person, for both taxation and the census count for representation. Congress could not regulate the slave trade until 1808 AD. The national capital would be built in a Southern state… eventually.  Slavery would not be immediately abolished, for the sake of forming the new government.  Finally, although a rehashed version of the English Bill of Rights was proposed, Southern states blocked it for months.  Not until the fight over the ratification of the Constitution heated up, would the American Bill of Rights be affirmed and included in the document.

Baron de Montesquieu’s opinions shaped the design of the government itself.  Montesquieu thought that any government’s powers should be clearly spelled out, and divided among competing groups or interests, to prevent one person or group from becoming too powerful.  Accordingly, the Constitution listed actions that the government could and could not take, and what powers it did and did not have.  It also separated these powers, and blocked any one person from having all of them.  Thus, the Constitution separated the three ‘branches of government’, the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial powers, from one another. No one power of the Federal government can be used alone. The President cannot make laws, Congress cannot enforce its laws, and the courts cannot enact laws.  As a result, the Federal government can in theory carry out its official business relatively easily, like making war and simplifying trade; but it cannot impose tyranny quite as easily, on either its citizens or the states.

As Montesquieu argued, the three branches each have methods of controlling and blocking the others from performing unlawful acts. All three branches of the government are further limited by the powers of the states, and those of citizens.  Regular elections, the Framers thought, would prevent individual officials of the government from gaining too much power.  The power of states to amend the Constitution against the federal government’s wishes would keep the Presidency from becoming a monarchy, or the Congress from becoming a Parliament like in England.  Indeed, all the compromises throughout the Constitution helped guarantee that no one — rich or poor states, large or small states, ambitious leaders,  conniving citizens, slaves or free men — would ever be able to get everything they wanted from the new Federal government.  It was designed to serve everyone, by ultimately serving no one too well.  The Constitution went into effect on September 13, 1788 by the last act of the Continental Congress.

A few notes on the text:

  • This was written in one sitting, between 11:00pm and 11:30pm last Monday night.
  • It was written after 20+ years of writing practice
  • It is 728 words long.
  • Without textbook, with 10+ student papers right in front of me.
  • With a clear plan of what I wanted to say
  • With a desire to show how to ‘connect’ paragraphs.
  • With a desire to show that even a well-written document can still not quite hit the marker perfectly:
  • this doesn’t really answer the question, “What is a government for?”
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  1. Thanks for the good feedback. How do we explain to students that the work we’re asking them to do is reach for a mark in five paragraphs, that David McCullough the great American historian would have spent (in fact, did spend!) most of his career and millions of words trying to answer? That essential questions (Essential questions! What loaded words those are!?) are the sorts of questions that can consume whole careers, create deep arguments and break friendships in the academic world… and that trying to find deep, real-world answers to them that matter takes years of work and endeavor?

    We’re really pointing out to our students on a monthly or weekly basis some of the basic motivations of a historian’s-eye view of the universe, and asking them to try looking through another man or woman’s lenses for a little while.

  2. Nice work here, Mr. Watt. I think seeing us trying to jump through the hoops we’re setting up as learning experience is a powerful modeling of what we’re looking for. Perhaps the most important lesson this teaches is something you point out: “…even a well-written document can still not quite hit the marker perfectly.”

    That’s hard to realize if you never see it.

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