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From The Archives: Raging Bull

The Debate on the Constitution (2 vols.)

Edited by Bernard Bailyn
Library of America, 1993

America does not love love. Despite thousands of pop songs and Meg Ryan movies to the contrary, the emotion that resonates deepest in the breasts of true Americans is righteous indignation. Far sweeter than a whispered “I love you” from John Cusack is a lustily bellowed, “You CANNOT be serious!” from John McEnroe. There is a uniquely American craving to bask in the huffing and puffing of one lost in a rant. We are all familiar with the comedic rant, ranging from a low-key aside by Jerry Seinfeld to a keyed-up Carlos Mencia hyperventilating about race. But while we’re laughing at the jokes there is a separate, palpable attraction to the pure indignation that lets us lean in and think, “Hey, YEAH. Those guys ARE a buncha bastards!”

Those seeking an uncut variety of indignant rants should direct their attention to its natural medium, the breathless art of political commentary. This is the arena wherein practitioners embrace marathon trances of unwavering incantations to the Gods of the Indignant. The current American pundit landscape on both sides of the spectrum is festooned with such expert blowhards. The political right, in the form of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, et al, has hogged most of the bandwidth in recent years, but Keith Olbermann has screamed onto the scene with a ferocity that would make theologian Jonathan Edwards angry with joy. When O’Reilly repeatedly claimed that American troops committed an atrocity in WWII that every high school textbook attributes to the Nazis, Olbermann laid into him with a level of righteousness that caused lights to flicker and spoons to spontaneously buckle in households all across the country.

If candy is the currency of children, then indignation is the candy of American political discourse and, unfortunately, everybody wants some. Experts like Olbermann and O’Reilly, being experts, do it right by bringing honed techniques and occasional artistry to their craft. But in the post-post-modern era, anyone with a computer can set up a blog and have their own corner of the internet as their personal rantatorium. Even less skill is required to comment on such a blog. The political commentary of internet-based groundlings is facilitated by their assured anonymity. Face-to-face in a town hall, one might avoid slinging a racial epithet, but why bother with such quaint decorum in cyberspace? Anonymity does allow people to bring their sense of decorum down to the ‘raised-by-dingoes’ level, but it is utterly wrong to assume that this is a new feature in American politics. And that brings me to the Library of America’s two-volume collection of primary documents, The Debate on the Constitution.

By way of necessary preface, I will say that this collection is outstanding. It compiles, in chronological order, speeches, letters, pamphlets, and editorials, from the moment the proposed Constitution was released to the public in September 1787 to its ratification by a two-thirds majority of nine states in August of 1788. One can read it straight through easily and enjoyably, but anyone expecting to find an endless font of lofty oration and selflessly driven political wisdom will be disappointed. But who wanted that anyway? What the rest of you will find is the hard stuff. This is truly the ‘good shit,’ the uncut Brazilian cocaine of righteous indignation. It’s not up to me to warn you about overdosing, but I can attest that prolonged sessions will leave you feeling shaky and spent.

It’s wrong to say there is absolutely no lofty oration in these volumes. There is, and Alexander Hamilton and James Madison’s Federalist papers best exemplify it. Still, they spend as much time unpacking partisan shots as they do constructing positive arguments. They read much like the partisan-but-above-the-fray styles of Frank Rich or David Brooks do today, but with the Federalist authors (especially Hamilton) trying even harder to flash their intellectual prowess and elitist credentials. On the anti-elitist tack, and not unlike wingnut retorts aimed at Frank Rich, the immediate response to Federalist I is in an anonymous editorial by John Humble, who is no doubt the colonial root of Joe Sixpack’s family tree. His brief letter rebuts the erudite prose of the Federalist by describing the “royal” government and permanent aristocracy that the Constitution will establish, replete with lords and kings (senators, president) who will behead and quarter their low-born tax base. His conclusion is a paroxysm of sarcasm in which he declares he would be comforted if “our tongues be left us to lick the feet of our well born masters.”

The use of the pseudonym is the most surprising and pervasive aspect of this collection. With the exception of private letters, almost the entire public debate was carried on in anonymity.

Bloggers might be shocked to learn that you don’t need a laptop and a latté to espouse indignation without fear of reprisal; a feather pen and a ramshackle printing press will do just fine. The few men who went on public record in town halls or wrote under their own bylines each generated tons of subsequent anonymous commentary. James Wilson of Pennsylvania was one of the framers of the proposed Constitution. When he later spoke in favor of the plan and tried to explain some of its unstated underpinnings, vitriolic responses were penned by “Cincinnatus,” “Centinel,” “A Democratic Federalist,” “An Officer in the Late Continental Army,” and “Plain Truth.” The most seethingly indignant was titled, “O Sense Where is Your Guard! Shame Where is your Blush!

George Mason

It doesn’t take long for the anonymous editorialists railing for and against the Constitution to start interacting with one another to the near-exclusion of reasoned argument. In modern terms, both sides quickly established talking points and then began talking only about the talking points. Cato, a wily opponent of the plan, launches his first essay with a gentle declaration of non-partisanship, “Without directly engaging as an advocate for this new form of national government, or as an opponent…,” and an injunction of level-headed prudence, “Deliberate, therefore, on this new national government with coolness; analyze it with criticism; and reflect on it with candour.” As you can imagine, these sentiments are pure partisan hackery, and it’s only three days later that Cato finds himself looking up from under the omnibus at his new foil, Caesar. After sarcastically agreeing that Cato’s non-partisanship is a fair way to start a debate, Caesar goes on to cherry-pick a quote (emphasis Caesar’s):

A little caution, however, he thinks necessary to be given in the mean time. “Do not” says this prudent Censor, in addressing the Citizens, “because you admit that something must be done, adopt any thing.” What in the name of common sense does this injunction import? I appeal to men of understanding, whether it is not obviously the language of distrust, calculated, as far as such a thing can influence, to prejudice the public opinion against the New Constitution; and, in effect, by periphrastic mode of speech, recommending the rejection of it?

Cato responds in his next essay by utterly losing his cool:

Here I intended to have rested the introduction, but a writer under the signature of CAESAR, in Mr. Child’s paper of the 1st instant, who treats you with passion, insult, and threat has anticipated those observations which would have otherwise remained in silence until a future period. …For what did you throw off the British yoke and call yourselves independent? Was it from a disposition fond of change or to procure new masters? – if those were your motives, you have your reward before you – go, – retire into obscurity, and kiss the rod that scourges you…. But if you had nobler views, and you are not designed by heaven as an example – are you now to be derided and insulted? – is the power of your thinking, on the only subject important to you, to be taken away? And if per chance you should happen to dissent from Caesar, are you to have Caesar’s principles crammed down your throats with an army? – God forbid!

Et tu, caps lock? We can imagine this same discussion occurring in the comment fields of Politico, Wonkette, the Huffington Post, etc., ad infinitum and going like this:

Cato: I think we should consider this constitution slowly and carefully.

Caesar: Cato is in the tank for the anti-federalists. That “carefully and slowly” line is code for gumming up the works. He just wants to start endless cycles of squabbling to filibuster this thing out of existence. People, listen to General Washington when he says vote “Yes.” BTW, do you know what’s the difference between Cato and a pig? Nothing. Cato, GTFO.

Cato: I was trying to appeal to the reason and good judgment of all the good and intelligent people reading this, but some flatulent troll just said George Washington should call out the army and MAKE us all accept this botched and Bill-of-Rights-free rag. Real democratic, asshole. Hey Caesar, EABOD.

Genuine political scholars and anyone not solely interested in the exuberant tones of the debate will revel in the many parallels between these debates and modern politics. Those with a healthy fear of the Patriot Acts will hear their thoughts echoed by An Old Whig who says, “Scarce any people ever deliberately gave up their liberties; but many instances occur in history of them losing them forever by a rash and sudden act, to avoid a pressing inconvenience or gratify some violent passion of revenge or fear.” And, obviously, many of the Constitutional questions raised by President Bush’s expansion of executive branch were immediate concerns among Anti-Federalists.

Alexander Hamilton

That brings me to the one serious departure from modern political discourse I found while reading this history. In the modern day it’s easy to spot a crackpot. If you decide to engage a Lyndon LaRouche pamphleteer, you know what you’re getting into. Because modern readers of The Debate on the Constitution know what happens, i.e. the Constitution worked (more or less) for 220 years, there is a natural tendency to pick sides. With the Anti-Federalist camp populated with filibustering friends like Cato, you are led to approach every Anti-Federalist as you would a Lyndon LaRouche supporter. And this is where you can get surprised. Anti-Federalist Brutus, for example, starts off an editorial with some boneheaded or, as we know with the benefit of hindsight, irrelevant objections to the Constitution. But then he lands on this gem of an idea that I will have to take the liberty of paraphrasing. Basically he asks, “The idea of two houses plus an executive sounds good, I get that, but don’t you think power will start to accumulate in one of those branches to the point where it just makes the other two its lackeys?” His concern was that the Senate would do this, but even after 220 years the legitimacy and relevance of the concern is downright jarring.

Referring to the marketplace of ideas, anonymous editorialist Americanus said that anonymous editorials amounted to “a sort of Indian fight.” If by that he meant they’re a form of crafty cheating not bound by civilized morality – which is exactly what he knew his audience would understand by the remark – then he couldn’t have described it any better for his own time or ours. Engaging that marketplace on the internet you find a ready supply of outrage and indignation to warm your heart and it all happens to be extremely relevant to our political and economic world. Reading The Debate on the Constitution, one finds nearly the same thing, although it occasionally takes an ounce of effort to connect the dots. But don’t let that extra mental taxation put you off. When A Democratic Federalist asks his/our fellow countrymen, “O! my much respected fellow citizens! And are you then reduced to such a degree of insensibility, that assertions like these will not rouse your warmest indignation?” rise to the occasion and tell him, “No sir, we are not. Bring it on.”

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Jeffrey Eaton is a fundraiser and amateur photographer. He lives within spitting distance of the US Capitol, a fact he has confirmed through frequent spitting. His photographs have been featured in the April 2007 and November 2007 issues of Open Letters.

One Comment »

  • MM says:

    A capacity and willingness to love is probably a sine qua non of any society we’d recognize as fully human; but I’m not sure that “loving love” has anything especially to recommend it. From my own limited observation, the people who are most emphatic about loving love are often either selfish fantasists, or power-hungry fanatics who will love you to death if you let them. Both Christianity and Islam–each responsible for more cruelty and violence than we can accurately record or imagine (not to say they weren’t both also responsible for giving people hope and aid, and even raising moral consciousness)–consider themselves religions of loving love.

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