Franke: The Other Father of our Constitution

September 13, 2018

Please note that Monday is national Constitution Day. (For immediate release; click on mug shot for high-resolution image.)

by Mark Franke

James Madison is generally known as the Father of the Constitution, and rightfully so. His record of the debates at the Constitutional Convention are a historical treasure. His partnership with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in authoring the Federalist Papers may be the most effective one in our history. Where we would we be today if they hadn’t convinced enough Americans to support ratification? Not the leader of the free world, I hazard.

It is one of our great tragedies that the Madison-Hamilton alliance suffered a bitter split, one that I think rivals the more celebrated one between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. In each case, friends and colleagues ceased working together for the greater good in favor of partisan politics. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But it is John Adams who gets short shrift in our historiography. Partly this is due to his petulant demeanor and penchant for saying what was on his mind regardless of who was listening. Free with criticism was Adams and nobody likes people like that, especially when they all too often prove to be right.

One belief Adams propounded, and extremely politically incorrect at the time, was his outspoken opinion that the British constitution was a paragon of genius. Hyperbole perhaps, but his point had to do with the balance among the governmental branches that worked to preserve liberty. Unfortunately he ineptly began talking about this while the American War of Independence was still in progress.

What Adams meant was that Great Britain’s government was structured to represent differing constituencies of social class through a healthy conflict of interests. He argued that the tripartite government of Crown, Lords and Commons imposed a balance that constrained any of these from abusing the liberty of the others.

Here is how Adams viewed this: The Commons of course represented the larger population of farmers and workers, even if imperfectly given the existence of rotten boroughs and controlled constituencies. The Lords represented an aristocracy of both birth and obligation to service, and the Crown stood on behalf of the nation at large. This balance positively mitigated the benefits and dangers of each form of government — monarchy, rule of the one; aristocracy, rule of the few; and democracy, rule of the many.

Adams opposed a trend among the new states to establish unicameral legislatures like Pennsylvania’s and figurehead executives like Virginia’s. The social class interests needed to compete in order to check each other in defense of overall liberty.

The best model was one of republican government with a balance of power essential to good government, Adams wrote, one the new states should follow. One can imagine how that went down at the time.

Adams was right, though. The Massachusetts constitution, influenced by Adams and his writing, became the archetype for balance among the branches of government. Many individual state legislatures came to understand this when writing their own during the war.

Now think how that played out in the writing of our national constitution.

Reading a history of the debates at the convention is fascinating. Most school children, at least those of my generation, can recall ideas like the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the 3/5ths Compromise and so forth. The convention was a textbook example of compromise for the common good.

Look at our current governmental structure. We have a House of Representatives elected locally and ideally focused on local needs. The Senate represents the states, even if more so back then when senators were elected by state legislatures. The President is elected by the states through the Electoral College but is expected to represent the good of the entire nation.

What we have is what Adams advocated and what the convention adopted even without his physical presence. He may not have been there in person but no one can gainsay his intellectual presence through his influence on the delegates who were.

So as our nation celebrates this Constitution Day, we certainly should thank Madison, Hamilton and the delegates at the original convention, but let’s not forget John Adams who gave us a government with a balance of powers.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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