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The Constitution: First Impressions

February 27, 2012

November 10, 1787 – December 12, 1787

“How do you like our new constitution?” – TJ to JA

The U.S. Constitutional Convention convened on May 29 and adjourned on September 17 of 1787. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not in attendance. That’s like the Red Sox winning the 2004 ALS without Manny and Big Papi. Of course, there were plenty of heavy hitters: George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Roger Sherman. You could say the American political elite in 1787 had a deep bench. I can’t promise that will be the last sports analogy.

Let’s get down to first impressions.

JA to TJ: “I forwarded a few days ago, from Mr. Gerry, a Copy as I suppose of the Result of Convention.—It seems to be admirably calculated to preserve the Union, to increase Affection, and to bring us all to the same mode of thinking. They have adopted the Idea of the Congress at Albany in 1754 of a President to nominate officers and a Council to Consent: but thank heaven they have adopted a third Branch, which that Congress did not. I think that Senates and Assemblies should have nothing to do with executive Power.”

Jefferson isn’t so enamored. TJ to JA: “I confess there are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an assembly has proposed. The house of federal representatives will not be adequate to the management of affairs either foreign or federal. Their president seems a bad edition of a Polish king. He may be reelected from 4. years to 4. years for life. Reason and experience prove to us that a chief magistrate, so continuable, is an officer for life. When one or two generations shall have proved that this is an office for life, it becomes on every succession worthy of intrigue, of bribery, of force, and even of foreign interference. . . I wish that at the end of the 4. years they had made him for ever ineligible a second time.”

Many historians agree that if he wanted to, George Washington could have remained president for the rest of his life, setting the exact precedent Jefferson feared. So, we can thank GW for setting the two-term precedent, and the Congress of 1947 for making it a law (the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951). Or not, if you’re a Libertarian.

JA and TJ wrote these letters on November 10 and 13, respectively, which means they are writing their first impressions of the Constitution without having yet heard the other’s opinion. Now, with JA’s response about a month later, things get interesting.

JA to TJ: “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have a full fair and perfect Representation.—You are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy. I would therefore have given more Power to the President and less to the Senate. The nomination and Appointment to all offices I would have given to the President, assisted only by a Privy Council of his own Creation, but not a Vote or Voice would I have given to the Senate or any Senator, unless he were of the Privy Council. Faction and Distraction are the sure and certain Consequence of giving to a Senate a vote in the distribution of offices.”

Screw Senate hearings.

JA also isn’t too keen on elections. The letter continues: “You are apprehensive the President when once chosen, will be chosen again and again as long as he lives. So much the better as it appears to me. . . [A]s often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs. The less frequently they happen the less danger.—And if the Same Man may be chosen again, it is probable he will be, and the danger of foreign Influence will be less. Foreigners, seeing little Prospect will have less Courage for Enterprise. Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror. Experiments of this kind have been so often tryed, and so universally found productive of Horrors, that there is great Reason to dread them.”

“Foreign influence” was, of course, a big concern during the infancy of the USofA. And instability surrounding elections seems to be a timeless truth, at least globally if not in this country. Here’s an experiment: substitute the phrase “foreign influence” with “corporate interests” and sound that out for today. Adams may have a point. Of course, it’s a slippery path applying 18th-century thinking to 21st-century realities. On the other hand, isn’t that why history matters? Oh, snap.

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