The triumph of the Convention of 1787 is that in raising a standard to which the wise and honest could repair, it also raised one that met the threefold test of legitimacy, popularity, and viability.
One reason the Convention was able to strike the right balance between the urge to lead the people and the need to obey them, and between the urge to be noble and the need to be practical, was the disposition of most delegates to be “whole men” on stern principles and “halfway men” on negotiable details. Another was the way in which it worked with familiar details – the State Constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, the best of the colonial experiences – and thus presented the people with a constitution that surprised but did not shock.
Rejoicing in philosophy but despising ideology, putting a high value on reason but an even higher one on experience, interested in the institutions of other times and peoples but confident that their own were better, unafraid to contemplate the mysteries of the British Constitution but aware, in Wilson’s words, that it “cannot be our model,” the Framers kept faith with the American past even as they prepared to make a break with it. Indeed, the excellence of their handiwork is as much a tribute to their sense of continuity as to their talent for creative statesmanship. The Constitution was an ingenious plan of government chiefly in the sense that its authors made a careful selection of familiar techniques and institutions, then fitted them together with an unerring eye for form. It had very little novelty in it, and that, we with the aid of hindsight, was one of its strongest points.
A final reason – and also perhaps the most heartening lesson the Convention presents to supporters of Constitutional republics, was the process of give-and-take through which these masterful public men managed to create a Constitution that could be carried home with some confidence to every part of a sprawling country. While the process may have often seemed unnecessarily erratic and time wasting to those trapped in its midst, we can see that it was the only way in which self respecting representatives of free men could have pieced together a set of operational rules of government and, at the same time, settled their outstanding political differences. In doing these things so well, and so acceptably to all but a handful of their colleagues, the men of 1787 met the supreme test of the democratic assembly; they proved beyond a doubt that the whole was wiser than the parts, that the collective was more creative than any individual in it. No single man, nor even the most artfully constructed team of four or five, could have provided so wisely for the Constitutional needs of the American people as did the logic of reason that operated through the whole Convention.
All in all, it was a convincing demonstration of the truth that the highest political wisdom in a Constitutional republic lies in the assembly rather than in the individual lawmaker.
From Clinton Rossiter, 1787 The Grand Convention W.W. Norton & Co., 1966
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Published by Tom & Siena Hoefling