Harry Frankel

How the Constitution Was Written

(April 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol.7 No.4, April 1946, pp.118-121.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In our previous essay (see Fourth International, March 1946) we outlined the role of the Northern merchants and the Southern planters in the struggle of the American colonies for independence. If we follow the coalition to the next great stage of its work, we find it in the unification of the nation under the Constitution. At this stage, however, the lead in the coalition changes hands and the merchants become the more aggressive and dominant element.

The cause of this shift is easily traced. The merchant class stood in need of a strong national government far more urgently than its ally in the coalition. Its need was lodged in the classic motivations that have everywhere caused the bourgeoisie to accomplish the task of national unification. The planters on the other hand, had a lesser interest in the foundation of a strong central government. In the course of the struggle over the Constitution the erstwhile allies of the planters, the farmers of the interior, turned against them. The planters themselves were lukewarm on the subject. In the light of these conditions, it is not at all strange that the merchant class, taking advantage of its concentration in urban centers, its capacity for swift action and its superior organization was able to leap to the front and take the helm in the coalition.

It would be wrong to imagine, however, that the Northern merchants alone and against the opposition of the planters formulated the Constitution and established the Union – in a word that the coalition was broken. This is the error made by Charles A. Beard in his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy.

Beard, in tracing the origin of the first two great political parties in the U.S., the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists or Republicans, set out to prove that they had their roots in an economic antagonism between mercantile and planter-farmer interests. In this he is naturally correct as against his opponents in the dispute. However, in his anxiety to trace the dispute along a single straight line, he commits an error which historians of his school would have us believe is made only by Marxists who are allegedly prisoners of their dogmatic schematism. In the fight over the Constitution, he places the planting interests who later led the Anti-Federalists, in the camp of the opponents of the Constitution. He is guilty of schematism because he does this to prove a continuous line of opposition between the two classes. In reality, the antagonism was not so simple.

The planters and merchants were in their relations like intermeshing gear wheels. Their interests revolved in opposite directions, but nevertheless, possessed many points of contact and mutual dependence. Chief among these was a vigilance against the restive population in the cities and on the land. This important political congeniality served to unite them at many crucial times, particularly during the writing and ratification of the Constitution.

Sharp rebellion in Massachusetts and the capture of the Rhode Island State government by the indebted farmers had just served notice on the ruling classes of the precariousness of their position in the face of the rising popular clamor. This notice was served in the South as well as the North, and we have Madison’s authority to authenticate the stories of rebellion in Virginia. That the planters shared the alarm of the merchants at these storm signals, and that they moved to form a strong central government capable of helping the states to maintain propertied rule is indubitable. Washington, the largest planter of Virginia, shows in his letters the profound effect these events had upon him.

Add to this the additional reason, that the planters would benefit from a union that would enable them by commercial treaties to establish their markets outside the British sphere, and the full motivation for the cooperation of the planters in the imposition of the federal Constitution emerges. Beard himself recognized this in his earlier work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, where he wrote that despite their interest in a loose union, the planters favored the Constitution because “there were over-balancing compensations to be secured in a strong federal government.”

The two chief leaders of the Anti-Federalist party, the planter leaders Madison and Jefferson, stood behind the Constitution. Madison, indeed, was the central figure of the Constitutional Convention, the “Father of the Constitution.” Jefferson, writing from Paris, approved the substance of the work of the Convention:

I am not of the party of federalists, but I am much further from that of the anti-Federalists. I approved from the first of the great mass of what is in the new Constitution ...

Jefferson goes on to speak for a bill of rights (later adopted), and a provision denying re-eligibility to the President. Beard comments on this letter that Jefferson could have been called “with equal justification” an opponent or a friend of the Constitution! So far from the truth had his mechanical approach to the dynamic relations of two classes led him.

Even the figures which Beard presents on the composition of the Constitutional Convention, figures which speak so eloquently in his behalf at other times, speak against him here. Of the delegates whose later political opinions are known, 25 were to become Federalists and 18 were to become Anti-Federalists. All of the 25 merchant representatives, primarily from the North, voted for the Constitution. Of the 18 later to become Jeffersonians or Anti-Federalists, 12 favored the Constitution and 6 opposed it – thus the bulk of the planting representatives worked for the adoption of the new instrument.

The true story stands in this light: the planters lost their allies, the small farmers, when they maintained their coalition with the merchants in the organization of the Federal Union; the farmers opened a struggle against the Constitution and established the elements of the new party, and the planters later left the coalition to join the farmers in the struggle against the mercantile class when the latter disclosed its plans in the Hamiltonian system.

We now enter upon one of the most amazing chapters in American history. For the first time in close to three decades the planter-merchant coalition that ruled the country was broken. In a brilliant and vigorous stroke the Northern bourgeoisie took independent possession of the state power and for a turbulent decade, used it like a pile driver to sink the foundations of American capitalism.

How was it possible for the mercantile elements to accomplish this? We have already seen how the planters, having a lesser interest in the adoption of the Constitution, left the lead in the work for the merchants. In the struggle over ratification, a struggle which necessitated much intrigue and a political struggle on the part of the bourgeoisie, they organized a strong political force in the name of Federalism. This force they used to catapult themselves to leadership in the early government. Their activity and their energy everywhere, their strongly organized class conscious forces in the urban centers, gave them the hegemony over the planters.

Hamilton’s Program

Alexander Hamilton was a brilliant young lawyer of West Indian birth who had served as a Colonel on Washington’s staff during the revolution. From his early childhood he had manifested a mental precocity that revolved around two main axes: a splendid capacity for financial analysis and a strong belief in the rule of the rich, aristocratic and “well-born.” Entering Washington’s cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury, he demonstrated his abilities and developed his conceptions in the famous “Hamiltonian system” to such good effect that he was soon the idolized leader of the mercantile elements.

Two letters recently (1931) discovered by Professor James O. Wetterean testify to the immediate origin of Hamilton’s program. In November 1789, William Bingham, Philadelphia “merchant, capitalist and banker” ... wrote a long letter to Hamilton in which he recommended virtually all of the essential measures subsequently proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury. Stephen Higgenson, “mariner, merchant and broker” of Boston also wrote Hamilton in the same vein, advocating similar measures to those finally proposed by Hamilton. Does this discovery detract from Hamilton’s genius? Not at all. For Marxists understand that political leaders do not “invent” the programs they advocate, but draw them from the interests of one or another economic class. Hamilton has won his place in American history by the energy and resoluteness of his appreciation of the bourgeois program, and by the brilliance of his defense of his measures.

Hamilton’s system was unified by a single conception: The establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie. In the first place he proposed a funding of the debt of the central government through the issuance of bonds which would repay in full the claims on the government. In the second place, he proposed a similar funding of the debts incurred by the states during the war and their assumption by the Federal government. In order to understand the audacity of these measures, it must be remembered that the paper with which the soldiers had been paid was largely in the hands of speculators, brokers and merchants, who had bought up the “worthless” stuff at as low as 1/6, 1/10 and 1/20 of its face value. Since the total of state and federal paper outstanding was about $60,000,000, and since those who held it paid, it has been calculated, no more than $20,000,000 for it, Hamilton’s proposals amounted to an outright gift of $40,000,000. The stupendous size of this grant can be appreciated when it is understood that the total land values in all of the thirteen states at that time were only ten times that amount.

What a speculator’s orgy! They thronged the galleries of Congress like harpies. Would the measures pass? Of the 64 members of the House, 29, almost half, are known to have been owners of paper. Many were speculators. While the measures were under consideration, two fast sailing vessels chartered by a member of Congress flew southward freighted for speculation. Coaches drawn by steaming teams rocked over the bumpy roads of the interior, on the mission of securing, at ridiculous prices the remainder of the paper in the hands of the uninformed veterans. Is it any wonder that they passed?

But speculation was not Hamilton’s primary motive. A key to this is seen in the fact that he himself held no paper, and dissuaded his wife’s rich family from securing any for fear that it might compromise him. His interest lay in the furtherance of his central conception: The strengthening of the rule of the bourgeoisie through the new federal government. In those who held the paper he saw a stout prop for the government. In their enrichment, he saw the expanding power of the bourgeoisie.

Aiding the Bourgeoisie

Among Hamilton’s other measures were the establishment of a National Bank as the centralized engine of the moneyed power, and measures for the development of industry outlined in his famous Report on Manufactures of December 5, 1791. If we were to summarize his program, we would say that it aimed at the sharp stimulation of capitalism. It was carefully calculated to provide a fluid working capital for the bourgeois class, in the form of the certificates of the funded debt backed by the Federal Government. The whole structure was to support and repay itself out of taxation of the population. Internal excise taxes such as the Whiskey Tax were to provide the revenue.

Hamilton realized the truth of Jefferson’s assertion that the capital thus created was barren, producing, like money on the gaming table, “no accession to itself.” Thus he sought the alternate redemption of the capital structure out of the proceeds of manufactures, and worked vigorously for their encouragement. The stimulus was to be manifold. Fluid, well backed capital was to be provided by the funding and assumption of the debt. A tariff wall would protect the infant industries from British competition. Restrictions on the sale of western lands in the form of large parcels and high prices would hold the labor supply in the East and eventually lower its cost. So well did Hamilton realize the urgency of this phase of his program that he could even be seen, in those early days, tramping over the Jersey marshes with his merchant associates contemplating sites for factories.

Hamilton’s program met with violent opposition from the farmers, and their representatives, many of whom had opposed the adoption of the Constitution. Gradually, as they realized that the coalition was entirely ruptured by the audacious Hamilton, the large planters under the lead of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and similar figures went into opposition. A great battle opened that was to shake the nation to its roots during the next decade.

The agricultural interests were quick to realize that the work of the first administration was conducted entirely in behalf of the mercantile interests, and further, that it would pay for itself out of taxes and higher prices borne by the agricultural population, who constituted 9/10 of the country. Stung to fury, they launched a tenacious offensive under the able guidance of Jefferson. In this they had every advantage. The revolutionary ferment not yet subsided, was aroused to a wave of levelling radicalism by the stirring news from France. This the Anti-Federalists turned skillfully to their advantage and against the authoritative centralist ideology of the Hamiltonians. Jay’s Treaty with England in 1794, failing to provide for western farm interests by protecting navigation on the Mississippi, increased the indignation of those elements. The agricultural classes, numbering 9/10 of the population and led by the planters and their trained, able spokesmen, produced by the Revolution, formed an irresistible force in the America of that day.

The bourgeoisie stood on a too narrow base, a fact which Hamilton sensed and which he sought to correct by his feverish efforts in behalf of manufacturers. It was not until the middle of the 1840’s that manufactures surpassed commerce in the relative composition of the bourgeoisie. In the meantime the opening of the western lands and the admission of new agricultural states to the union increased the weight of the planters. Already during the decade of the great struggle, two new states were admitted who cast their votes in the Jefferson column in the election of 1800.

The bourgeoisie could do nothing to save itself from the planter-led popular storm. Desperately, they worked at the artificial concoction of a war with France which they could use to crush the opposition. This plot failed. Equally vain was the attempt to bind the breaking barrel with the iron hoops of the Alien and Sedition laws. All failed. They felt the pillars crumble beneath them and the edifice from which they had hoped to gain so much collapsed.

Foundations Remain

But if the edifice collapsed, the foundations stood and stand to this day, so well had Hamilton built. His accomplishments in that remarkable decade are truly great. For an anticipatory decade the American bourgeoisie held independent, unassisted power, and the taste of the brilliant fruits of their rule still lay in their mouths when they stormed and destroyed the Southern ramparts in the second American Revolution sixty-five years later.

The chief significance of Hamilton’s work lies in the fact that he guaranteed the shaky possibilities for union and placed them on a solid rock foundation. Had he failed, American capitalism would not have had to wait three quarters of a century for its Bismarck as Germany did, for the general trend of conditions favored union. Nevertheless, the issue was by no means decided in 1790, and Hamilton’s drastic measures tipped the scales.

Nor did the Jeffersonians molest the basic foundations laid down from 1789-1800. In Beard’s words, “They decided that the country could not be ruled without the active support, or at least the acquiescence of the capitalist interests.” Jefferson made a conciliatory inaugural address, and Hamilton, speaking of it, said:

“In referring to this speech we think it proper to make a public declaration of our approbation of its contents. We view it as virtually a candid retraction of past misapprehensions, and a pledge to the community that the new President will not lend himself to dangerous innovations.”

Although Jefferson ruled primarily in the interests of the agricultural elements, he guaranteed the public credit, left untouched the National Bank, preserved the Navy for the protection of commerce and strengthened the central government. The years that followed saw a trickle of supporters continually flowing from Federalism to Republicanism, including in their number prominent politicians and some of the richest of merchants. Despite the efforts of the die-hard elements of the merchant class organized in the Essex Junto, the coalition was partially restored. From 1800-1865 the bourgeois heir waited and fought to come into his own. The heritage it carved and struggled for was exclusive political and economic predominance. If the delay seems long, one should remember the enormous agricultural expansion, with the acquisition of vast western lands and the development of the greatest southern staple of all: cotton. Not out of whimsy did the New England merchants fight, in the early period of expansion, the acquisition of new western lands. Not for nothing were they known as the “little America” party. Had the Pacific instead of only the temporary barrier of the Alleghanies bounded the colonies on their westward side, the bourgeoisie would have come to power much sooner. The plantation system would have died from lack of nourishment in the form of the new lands it needed constantly, labor and capital would have been held in the East and the manufacturing Empire that Hamilton dreamed of would have advanced by forced marches. But things were otherwise, and the bourgeoisie had to wait.

We have now come to the end of the first revolution in American history. We have traced the coalition that ruled from its establishment through its chief modifications, ruptures and restorations. We have seen how the planters are primarily responsible for independence and the merchants for union. It was a period in which the class battles were fought entirely in the open. The majority of the population was disenfranchised, and the deceptive parliamentary facades of today were only in their infancy. The movements of the classes remain plainly imprinted on the pages of history like footprints in deep snow.


Last updated on 19.7.2006