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Fifth (and last) in a Series: John Dickinson and the Ratification of the Constitution

Fifth (and last) in a Series: John Dickinson and the Ratification of the Constitution

This is the last of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

Ill-health motivated John Dickinson to leave the federal convention a day early. Before departing, he instructed his friend and Delaware colleague, George Read, to affix his signature to the document. There are, therefore, 39 signatures to the document but only 38 men physically signed.

In early 1788, Dickinson perceived that ratification momentum was slowing. Accordingly, he composed for publication nine letters written under the pseudonym, “Fabius.” The Letters of Fabius were well-received and widely reprinted.

Unlike The Federalist or the “Aristides” essays of Alexander Contee Hanson, Fabius made no attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the Constitution. The letters focused primarily on answering the Antifederalist contention that the Constitution was too “high-toned,” and that its adoption would lead to aristocracy. If the reader reviews the Dickinson speech reported in my last post, he or she will see that Dickinson had anticipated this objection.

Fabius centered on a two-fold response. First, the rules governing the House, Senate, and president assured popular control. House members would be elected directly to short terms, and one third of Senators would be elected indirectly every two years. The president would be chosen by a method impervious to corruption; and although he enjoyed a veto, it was not absolute. The British had expanded and retained their liberties with far fewer democratic guarantees.

Second, freedom would be preserved by the confederal or federal (the words then were synonymous) nature of the system. In the original social compact, citizens donated certain rights or powers (words also then largely synonymous) to a central authority so as to protect retained rights/powers. Similarly, in a confederation, member states contributed rights/powers to a central authority so as to protect their remaining rights/powers.

But just as citizens are bound to be ever jealous of their rights and to check government accordingly, so also would the states be obligated to protect their reserved powers. “America is, and will be, divided into several sovereign states, each possessing every power proper for governing within its own limits for its own purposes, and also for acting as a member of the union.” Any states that allowed the federal government to interfere in their sovereign jurisdiction would be guilty of a breach of trust, for the “trustees or servants of the several states” were obliged to protect the authority citizens had placed in them. If state officials lose ground to the federal government, Dickinson maintained, “It will be their own faults.”

In addition to pressing his twofold argument, Dickinson made other points. One was the disadvantages of a confederation in which the central government had insufficient power. Dickinson cited both the Articles of Confederation and the fracture of two ancient Greek federations as examples. He also offered a positive case study: the 1707 union of England with Scotland. After reciting dire pre-union Scottish predictions his readers knew proved to be false, Dickinson identified the union’s benefits: the cultivation of virtues and correction of errors; protection for the lower classes; improvements in agriculture, science, arts, trade, and manufactures; the rule of law; peace and security at home, and increased respectability abroad. Amid the enjoyment of these benefits, the Scottish Church and laws, courts and judicature had remained established and secure.

A well-balanced confederation rendered all its members stronger. In modern terms, it reduced state shirking and free riding. Further, as in the human body, “A stroke, a touch upon any part, will be immediately felt by the whole.” A diseased member of the body severed from the rest could not recover, while one remaining connected could be saved.

Confederation was Dickinson’s answer to Montesquieu’s lament that a large territory cannot be governed by republican forms, and that attempting to do so resulted in fragmentation or tyranny. Confederation, said Dickinson, would ensure that government was effective throughout American territory while still checking the urge to centralize. No confederation had ever featured the protections contained in the Constitution. If they proved inadequate, the Constitution provided yet another response: a method for adopting “amendments on the authority of the people.”

* * * *

The author of Fabius was nearing the end of contemporaneous life expectancy, but in the event he was to live another two decades. During that time he maintained a large correspondence, including with Thomas Jefferson, who even as president always answered his letters.

In 1791-92, Dickinson served as president of the Delaware state constitutional convention, and briefly as a state senator thereafter. He wrote several articles and pamphlets, including new Fabius letters arguing for a pro-French foreign policy.

Most of his remaining life, however, was spent in retirement. He died in 1808, age 75.

Removing ‘Faithless’ Presidential Electors Is Unconstitutional

Removing ‘Faithless’ Presidential Electors Is Unconstitutional

This article originally appeared in the Daily Caller.

A 2016 Colorado Democratic presidential elector who pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton is suing because the state removed him from his position after he voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich instead. He joins two other electors with somewhat similar claims.

The three electors argue the Constitution bans states from dictating how they vote. They are represented by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor of wide interests and abilities.

According to the original meaning of the Constitution, Lessig and his three clients are correct. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 and the 12th Amendment—which together govern presidential elections—grant electors, not the states, authority to vote for president and vice president. Colorado’s effort to punish them for voting “wrong” is unconstitutional.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 provides, “Each state shall appoint [Electors], in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct …” Note that the appointment is by the state itself rather than by any branch of the state.

How the appointment is carried out (“in such Manner”) is determined by the state legislature. The record from the Founding era tells us that in this instance, “legislature” means the state’s general lawmaking apparatus, including the governor’s bill-signing function. The Constitution assigns some responsibilities to state legislatures acting alone, but fixing the manner of appointing presidential electors is not among them.

In other words, aside from the Constitution’s grant to Congress of power to fix a uniform presidential election day, the “Manner” by which a state appoints presidential electors is prescribed by state election laws. All states have passed laws authorizing the people of the state to vote for electors directly. (It’s worth mentioning that, for reasons too complicated to discuss here, a 1934 Supreme Court decision holding that Congress also has broad power over presidential elections was erroneous.)

What does this “manner of appointment” include? May a state impose pledges on candidates for elector? May a state punish those who break their pledges? May it remove an elector who votes the “wrong” way and substitute another who votes “right?”

Although the Supreme Court has upheld pledges, I doubt whether the Constitution authorizes states to do any of these things. A great deal of Founding-era evidence tells us that in this context “Manner” includes only the basic mechanics of selection: registration lists, voting districts, necessary margin of victory, and the like. The evidence does not suggest that “Manner” of selection encompasses how a successful candidate acts after selection.

Several facts reinforce this conclusion. First, the 12th Amendment provides, “The Electors shall … vote by ballot for President and Vice-President …” Electors vote—not a state puppet master. As the Supreme Court has recognized in cases involving constitutional amendments, when the Constitution grants a function to a convention or legislature, it means the convention or legislature, not some outside coercing agency.

If the Constitution allowed state authorities to dictate their state’s presidential votes, then why did it require the states to appoint flesh-and-blood electors?

Electors are to vote “by ballot.” In Founding-era language, that means secret ballot. But a state’s preferences generally will be public information. If the electors have nothing to decide, then why did the Constitution require a secret ballot?

As if all this were not enough, the Founders were explicit: Once chosen, presidential electors make their own decisions. In Federalist No. 67, for example, Alexander Hamilton wrote of the Electoral College:

[T]he immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the [president’s] station, and acting under circumstances favourable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements that were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.

Of course, a candidate running for presidential elector has every right to tell the voters how he or she expects to cast his or her ballot. But for better or worse the Constitution does not authorize the state to punish an elector if, in the exercise of discretion, he decides to change his mind.

Why Removing Historical Monuments is a Bad Idea

Why Removing Historical Monuments is a Bad Idea

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

While most Americans watch helplessly, our stateside Taliban vandalizes and removes long-standing public monuments. As some commentators point out, this destruction weakens our consciousness of history, including history’s darker side.

Even more importantly, however, erasing monuments of once-revered figures upsets an unspoken, but long-prevailing, consensus governing our decisions of whom to commemorate.  The consensus renders the commemoration process more meaningful and less political than it otherwise would be.

The standard traditionally applied is as follows: When deciding whom to commemorate—by statues, place names, monuments, holidays, currency, or coins—we select individuals who performed extraordinary feats that, on balance, made the world a better place. We disregard or discount those faults common to the individual’s time and place. We do not erect monuments to people who performed extraordinary feats that were unquestionably evil, even if their characters included some virtuous traits. Thus, George Washington is memorialized in statues and place names, although he held slaves. Adolph Hitler gets none, although he was kind to dogs.

George Washington is one example of the traditional standard in action. Other examples are the decisions to name towns in New York State, Illinois, and Indiana after the Roman consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was a great orator, an outstanding lawyer, a spokesman for balanced government, and the single person most responsible for transmitting the Greek philosophical tradition to Western Europe. It does not disqualify him that he selected a husband for his daughter rather than allowing her to select one for herself. Parental selection of spouses is anathema today, but in Cicero’s society, “everybody did it.”

Stupendous vision, energy, competence, and courage distinguished Christopher Columbus from others of his generation. His explorations united a world previously divided by hemispheres. His disreputable actions reflected attitudes and practices common to his society. Thus, we honor Columbus by monuments, place names, and a federal holiday.

Our domestic Taliban has made Robert E. Lee a target, allegedly because he held slaves and fought for his home state rather than the nation. But so did tens of thousands of others similarly situated. Lee was distinguished from his contemporaries by an exemplary career, both in the U.S. and Confederate armies, of competence and honor. In later years, Lee also distinguished himself as an educator: As president of the institution that is now Washington and Lee University, he was largely responsible for fashioning the modern college honor code.

There are at least two reasons for not permitting contemporaneous vices to disqualify historical figures from favorable commemoration.  First, virtually everyone acts in ways consistent with contemporaneous social norms—norms of which later generations may disapprove. Common faults are, by definition, common. If we disqualified all figures because we now reject their society’s practices, we would commemorate few people indeed, and we would deprive ourselves of many sources of inspiration.

Second, because almost everyone conforms in most respects to prevailing social practices, disqualification for such conduct is necessarily arbitrary and driven more by politics than by merit. The fact that a particular vice prevailed in a person’s place and time becomes an excuse for stripping recognition from people whose lives contradict the propaganda of those in power. Today “progressives” vandalize statues of Columbus and Lee, allegedly because of actions motivated by racism. Tomorrow a “white nationalist” majority may uproot monuments to Martin Luther King, allegedly because of his adulteries and other indiscretions. Or a religiously-conservative majority may blacklist outstanding women who in private life opted for legal abortions.

Admittedly, the traditional consensus is not an infallible guide to deciding whom to commemorate. For one thing, it can be a close question whether a person’s extraordinary feats made the world a better place: Franklin D. Roosevelt is widely commemorated, even though scholars still argue over whether his leadership during the Great Depression actually improved American life. Politics plays a role in answering close questions.

In some cases, moreover, politics induces decision makers to ignore the traditional standards. It is hard to explain on other than political grounds why so many more monuments and places are dedicated to John F. Kennedy than to much better presidents.

But the traditional standard does help minimize political manipulation of history. Perhaps that is precisely why the standard is flouted by those who want to politicize everything.


John Dickinson’s ‘Farmer’ Letters on Their 250th Anniversary

John Dickinson’s ‘Farmer’ Letters on Their 250th Anniversary

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.

This year, 2017, marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most influential series of writings in American history: John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the first of which appeared in 1767.

These “Letters”—12 newspaper op-eds later collected in book form—asserted the colonial cause against imperial British overreach and helped to lay the groundwork for the U.S. Constitution drafted two decades later. The letters also presented important ideas about resisting usurpation.

John Dickinson (1732-1808) did not sign the Declaration of Independence, but in other respects, he was an American Founder of the first rank. With homes in Delaware and Pennsylvania, he served both states. Pennsylvania sent him to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress and, after publication of the Farmer letters, to the Continental Congress in 1774. Dickinson authored most of those assemblies’ public pronouncements. He also chaired the congressional committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation.

During the Revolution, Dickinson served two stints in the American armed forces, after which Delaware returned him to Congress (1779). In 1781, he was elected president (governor) of Delaware. The following year, he was elected president of Pennsylvania. In 1786, representing Delaware, he chaired the Annapolis Convention, which recommended a constitutional convention the following year. Delaware sent Dickinson to the latter meeting, where he impacted the results in ways not fully understood until his convention notes were rediscovered a few decades ago.

Dickinson wrote the Farmer letters in response to the British Parliament’s Townshend Acts (1767). (The Townshend Acts imposed duties on goods imported to America.) They explained why the Townshend duties were improper and how and why Americans should resist them.

The Farmer letters took America by storm. They were reprinted in Britain and Europe. In accordance with the Founding-era understanding of freedom of the press, Dickinson had written anonymously, but the authorship soon became known. Dickinson eventually became one of the most famous Americans in the world, second only to Benjamin Franklin.

The letters maintained that the colonists, as British subjects, had the right not to be taxed without the consent of lawmakers elected by them. They also contended the Townshend duties were “taxes” because they were imposed to raise revenue rather than to regulate behavior. Thus, only the colonists’ elected legislatures could impose them on Americans. Parliament, where Americans were unrepresented, could not.

Dickinson’s case was largely legal and constitutional, but he supported it with appeals to natural law and human welfare. “We cannot be happy without being free … We cannot be free without being secure in our own property … We cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may take it away,” Dickinson wrote.

In furtherance of the same principle, Dickinson worked two decades later to ensure the Constitution prescribed that revenue bills could originate only in the House of Representatives.

The Farmer letters went well beyond asserting the case against taxation without representation; they also helped clarify American constitutional thinking on other questions, including: Which government responsibilities should be exercised centrally and which locally?

Dickinson argued the central government should regulate commerce among the political units of the British Empire, but individual colonies should control civil justice and other domestic matters. In this respect, the letters foreshadowed the split between federal and state powers embodied in the Constitution 20 years later. Early in the convention, Dickinson advocated dividing federal and state authority by “enumerating” federal powers. His fellow delegates eventually adopted the idea.

The letters defended the existence of the British House of Lords by observing the nobility needed a separate legislative chamber to protect them against the king and the commons. At the Constitutional Convention two decades later, Dickinson persuaded his fellow delegates to extend similar protections to the states. He successfully advocated the United States adopt a Senate that represents the states equally and is composed of legislators who are selected by state legislatures for long, staggered terms.

The Farmer letters further examined how a free people should respond to governmental usurpations. Dickinson recommended opposing small usurpations immediately to prevent them from acquiring the force of precedent. “A perpetual jealousy regarding liberty is absolutely required in all free states … Slavery is ever preceded by sleep,” he wrote.

But Dickinson also emphasized opposition should be carefully calibrated, avoiding both under- and over-reaction. Violence should never be the first step. Citizens should begin by petitioning for redress. If that proved unsuccessful, the next resort was lawful resistance, followed by peaceable civil disobedience.

Dickinson, like other Founders, emphasized the need to protect liberty by frequently resorting to “first principles.” This 250th anniversary offers Americans an opportunity to do just that.

Convention of States: How the States Meet to Bypass Congress

Convention of States: How the States Meet to Bypass Congress

This article was originally published in

The idea of a convention of states such as the one scheduled for Phoenix, Arizona on September 12 may be unfamiliar to most people, but similar conventions have gathered throughout American history.

British-American colonies first met in convention in 1677 to negotiate an Indian treaty. After that first meeting, inter-colonial conventions gathered on average every four to five years, up to the time of Independence. They considered Indian relations, defense, and other common issues. The famous Stamp Act Congress (1765) and the First Continental Congress (1774) were both inter-colonial conventions, and the Founding generation referred to them as such.

After the Declaration of Independence, the pace of conventions accelerated. State commissioners (delegates) met ten times between 1776 and 1786, including conclaves in Providence, Rhode Island (1776-77), Yorktown, Pennsylvania (1777), New Haven, Connecticut (1778), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1780), and Annapolis, Maryland (1786). These gatherings focused mostly on defense and economic matters. The 11th convention of the Founding era became the most famous: the 1787 Philadelphia conclave destined to draft a new Constitution.

Not all these early conventions were successful, but the convention mechanism proved invaluable. Conventions frequently resolved difficult problems that otherwise would have gone unsolved. And contrary to some of the claims you hear today, commissioners stuck by their agendas and did their jobs. This is why Article V of the U.S. Constitution authorizes a convention of states as a way to propose needed constitutional amendments Congress refuses to propose.

Each convention of states is a temporary task force of duly authorized state representatives convened to address and propose solutions to one or more specific issues. A convention results when states accept an invitation (referred to as a “call”) sent by a state, a prior convention, or, occasionally, Congress. The 2017 Phoenix convention was called by Arizona’s state legislature to prepare for the likelihood that a convention will soon meet to propose an amendment requiring Congress to balance the federal budget.

The Phoenix convention is not the first to be held since the Constitution was adopted. In fact, some of the most interesting conventions of states met in the 19th and 20th centuries. The New England states met in 1814 in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss how those states should respond to the unpopular War of 1812. The Hartford Convention proposed several amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Southern states assembled twice in Nashville, Tennessee in 1850 to coordinate a response to what they saw as overreach by the North. In early 1861, Virginia called a general convention for Washington, DC. That assembly proposed a constitutional amendment it hoped would stave off the Civil War. (The amendment was not adopted.) At the same time, several seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama to draft the Confederate Constitution.

Lasting success was enjoyed by the 1889 convention of states called by Kansas for St. Louis, Missouri. It successfully proposed state and national anti-trust laws. During the 20th century, a series of small conventions negotiated the allocation of western river waters. The best known of these was the seven-state Colorado River Compact Commission of 1922. The latest was the five-state convention that divided the waters of the Upper Colorado River in the 1940s.

Historically, most conventions of states have consisted of only a few states within a particular region, such as New England or the Midwest. But seven have been national in scope (“general conventions”). Whether regional or general, however, conventions have followed certain common protocols, including the rule by which participating states have equal votes.

The Article V Information Center in Denver recently posted a list of prior conventions of states. The list shows there have been 38 fully verified conventions and another five for which the Center has partial information. The Center website contains a great deal of additional information about conventions of states and the constitutional amendment process.