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Dr. Larry Arnn on the Transition From the Articles of Confederation to the Calling for the Constitutional Convention

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HH: Before I left on vacation, I decided I would ask Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, to join me for the insertion into my vacation week of a much-needed bit of Hillsdale Dialogue, for all things Hillsdale College related, including Imprimis, their magnificent, marvelous speech digest, including all the online courses, including the new online course about the Constitution, which Dr. Arnn teaches. And if you go to, you’ll find all of our conversations. And we have spent many weeks on the Declaration of Independence. But if, of course, it comes, then the war comes, then the war is won, and then they have to govern. And that’s where we pick up the story in what I call the gray years, because none of my Con Law, my Con Law students arrive, and they know the Declaration happened, and they know 1787 happened, kinda maybe sort of. And then I start filling in, but we’ve got this period of time up until 1787, and I want to talk about that with you, because it’s, it’s an interesting period of time. And you’ve written The Founders’ Key, and their whole Constitutional Convention comes out of this period of time, Larry Arnn. Could you set up what is going on?

LA: Well, so you know, America happened by unplanned stages, and yet there was amazing deliberation in it, too. So the first thing that happens is the British in 1763 decide they’re going to govern the Colonies more closely than they had before, and they’re going to tax them. We spent a lot of money over there. We just won a big war. We ought to get something out of it, and we ought to turn this into a big act of policy. So the Americans don’t like that at all. And the Americans are governed in discrete colonies that were founded at different times.

HH: And each has texture.

LA: That’s right.

HH: And each has a uniqueness to them.

LA: Yeah, they’re, you know, they grow different things. Some are port, some are financial, some are, so it’s a lot of…

HH: Some have slaves. Some do not.

LA: That’s right, big deal, right? Most do at this time, by the way. So they, the crisis really happens in Boston, chiefly, and some in New York. And so Boston’s a big port city, and there’s people killed, and they start corresponding. And you know, they don’t really have a government in common except London. And so this correspondence ends up being, people being sent from all of these colonies to Philadelphia to form first a dialogue, not the Hillsdale Dialogue, but some other ones, but then a Continental Congress. And so, and they do it the way you would do it. They all show up, they’re all colonies, they’re all the same, they’ve all got equal rights. They…

HH: What does George III think of this, by the way? This is when they’re starting to get together and correspond. And what do the King’s ministers think about this?

LA: Well, contempt and anger, more contempt and anger for a long time.

HH: Big mistake.

LA: Yeah, big mistake. You know, they didn’t, and you know, they were right, because first of all, this was all kind of screwy, right? They’ve never done this before. They don’t, you know, as a unit, although the institutions of self-government in America are very advanced, probably the most advanced in the world at the colonial level.

HH: House of Burgess, you betcha.

LA: So they get together, and they work out a way, and you know, it develops over the course of about, what, 17-18 months into an actual war, with the Declaration, there’s fighting, and then there’s the Declaration of Independence, which names the purpose of the war. And so now, they’re running a war, and they don’t really have an executive, and they, the Continental Congress doesn’t really have any way to get any money except to appeal to the states, the colonies, the states, they’ve become now. And so the war is a mess. And they, and you know, in 1781, until the war is over…

HH: But they appoint George Washington. They do one good thing.

LA: Yeah.

HH: They appoint George Washington the commander-in-chief.

LA: That’s right, who showed up on the day they were picking wearing his uniform.

HH: Yeah, a very…

LA: …which he had not done on other days, and he looked really good in his uniform. So they’re, so in 1781, John Dickinson, chiefly, who had refused to sign the Declaration of Independence earlier, is the chief author of the Articles of Confederation, and they are an advancement on the practices that have simply grown up, but not a massive advancement. It’s, each colony, each state now is to send some representatives, between two and nine. They are to, they can pass a budget, and they can requisition funds from the states, but it’s up to the states to collect the funds. And it breaks out, during the war…

HH: Each state gets one vote.

LA: Yeah, each state gets one vote. That’s right.

HH: So they can send nine, but they’ll have to agree 5-4 whatever, what their vote’s going to be on anything.

LA: Yeah, and you know, there are instances where they don’t have anybody.

HH: Rhode Island never sent anyone, right?

LA: Yeah, see…

HH: That’s why I’ve always said Rhode Island doesn’t really belong in the Union, shouldn’t have two senators, because they were obstinate.

LA: How would we do without…

HH: Jack Reed and Claiborne Pell, but the other one.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: I can’t remember.

LA: The Pell Grants.

HH: Oh, yeah.

LA: If, anyway, so it’s dysfunctional during the war, and that’s why there’s this really beautiful thing about George Washington at Newburgh, because they’ve won now, the war. They won on the battlefield, right? They won at Yorktown. And the British are giving up, and it takes forever to get the peace conference together. So they still have to keep an army in the field, but they’re continuing not to pay the army. And the reason is they send out requisitions, and you should read George Washington’s letters to the Continental Congress, John Hancock prominent in it, to get, you know, this is indecent and wrong. We are establishing our republic. We’re defending the whole thing. And we don’t get paid. And when we buy things from people, you know, to fee ourselves, and people won’t take our money. It’s ridiculous. So the Articles weren’t very good in the war, and then after 1783, when the Paris Climate Accords were signed…

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) …that the Treaty of Paris Climate Accords, was its formal title, then now we’ve got a country recognized, although the British kept messing with us for years after that. They, now we have the Articles of Confederation. They’ve been ratified by 1781, and they’re, we’re operating under them. And we don’t pay our bills, and you know, James Madison writes a very great thing that’s in our Constitution Reader that everybody should read called the Vices of the Political System of the United States, which lays out the case for a better Constitution. And just points out a lot of things, which basically amount to we’re a laughing stock. And we don’t pay our bills, we borrow money from powers that have been extremely friendly to us, and we don’t pay it back. We stiff them. In Massachusetts, in particular, there are roving gangs, bands out in the country, and on the days when mortgage payments are due, people are supposed to pay off their mortgages for their debts for their land, they show up and shut down the banks. And they’re impeding commerce, and it’s tearing…

HH: Mr. Shays.

LA: Yeah, Shays’ Rebellion, right? And so there’s, it’s absurd, and so there’s, you know, and people think oh, and you talk about what do the British think? During this period, what the British think is I told you so. And they’ll come back. They can’t, and that’s what really sticks in the craw of a lot of people. You could read the correspondence among Hamilton and Madison and Washington about this, because the British are saying these ordinary folks could never have done this by themselves. Watch them fail. And that really ticks them off.

HH: When we come back from break, we’ve got to talk about Washington and his declining of the temptation, and what George III thought about him declining the temptation.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Because it actually sets up the return of Washington. So don’t go anywhere, America. The Hillsdale Dialogues are all collected at

— – — – – —

HH: There are at least three events I know, and I want Dr. Arnn to talk about these. All things Hillsdale at All these conversations collected at One is when the army isn’t getting paid, and George Washington is in charge, tell us that story, Dr. Arnn. It’s always important to hear.

LA: So they, Rick Brookhiser in a book called Founding Father, a biography of George Washington, writes beautifully about this, so I’ll tell the story the way he does. The officers are, you know, they’ve been miserable and indignant all through the war. But now, they’ve won. And so they’ve got prestige, and they can’t get paid. And so they work up a plan that goes around that they’re going to pick up their wives and children, livestock, and move out west and start over on their own, and leave all these people back here to stew in their own devices, which is an interesting idea, right? In other words, they’re not going to use force to tyrannize them, but we’re just going to take off, leave them denuded. Let the British come back and take them over, right? And so another thing goes on at about the same time in the camp at Newburgh where they all are waiting for a peace treaty to get signed, and that thing is a circular goes around about George Washington should be appointed king as the remedy to this chaos. Put him in charge. We all love him. So he forcefully repudiates this claim of king. But then a letter gets composed. It’s in draft form and going around, various versions of it, that they’re going to send to the Congress about this threat that they’ll take off if they don’t get their dough. And so George Washington finds out that his officers are going to hold a meeting to discuss this. And the first thing he does is he moves the meeting. He changes the time and the place of the meeting, which means now, he’s taking control of it. He doesn’t tell them whether he’s coming or not. And they gather, and they start, and he walks in. And of course, it’s just like in the cabinet later after the Constitution has passed and George Washington is president, they behave much worse when he’s not around.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) And so they, so he asked to speak, and a famous thing, he reads this thing out about being a king. And the repudiates that, and he gets out his spectacles and says I’ve grown old in the service of my country, and almost blind.

HH: He’s an actor. You know, he went to see, what did he see, it was the great Roman, the play that he was going to…

LA: Cato.

HH: Cato. He’d go to see Cato again and again and again, right?

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: So he’s a theater guy.

LA: Oh, man, he’s just, and you know, why, you know, an unusually tall man, especially for those time, right, over six feet tall, and why would a guy, he was very handsome man, but also, he was a horseman. And he had big, strong, powerful horses, and he could ride them in battle without using the reins. He could ride them with his legs and his feet. And so he was an incredibly striking man. And you know, I mentioned earlier when they’re going to pick a general in the Continental Congress, he shows up, and see, it wouldn’t be like George Washington to recommend himself for anything ever, except it would be just like him to show up in his military uniform, right, looking great. And like, they were talking about John Hancock, right, to be the commander-in-chief. And John Adams, who was very influential, you know, appointed Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, and Washington to be, helped get him to be the commander. And what’s that about? The scene of action is up in Massachusetts. Virginia is a huge and important place down in the south. Get these Virginians involved.

HH: Get them into the war.

LA: Get them in the war.

HH: Like Churchill wanted FDR in the war later.

LA: That’s right. That’s right.

HH: Get him in.

LA: Drag him in, right? so it’s, so…

HH: Hold that thought. We’ll come right back. George Washington is putting on his glasses, and it matters a lot for the next six years. Stay tuned.

— – — –

HH: Dr. Arnn, at Newburgh, the American Army has gathered waiting for the peace treaty to be signed. They wanted to make Washington king. He said no. Now, they want to head out west, and they pass around a letter, and he puts on his glasses, and he says I’ve grown old in the service of my country, and nearly blind. And what’s he say to them?

LA: He says think of the glory that you’ve won, and that you would sacrifice by marching like a mob on Congress in mutiny. Think of the harm that would come to your property, and maybe your families. And then he said, think of the cause for which you fought. He said remember all that. This wondrous thing has happened. We won. And look at what you’re sacrificing. And then he says, and see, this is his way. He is just so awesome a human being. He says in this matter of your pay, I will be your servant. He’s showing them an example, see? I will work on this. You are right about this. I will work on this. I will do what I can.

HH: In the meantime, George III, as you said in the last segment, thinks it’s all going to fall apart, and is waiting on it. But he’s told that Washington won’t take the crown. How’s he react to that, because I think it’s important for people to know that.

LA: Well, it’s an old story, and because of its age, and because of the persistence of it, it is a widely-believed story, and I believe it, although there’s no source for it.

HH: Interesting.

LA: So, but he is, George III is said, reminded by his ministers that it’s time to staff up this peace conference, which means he’s lost the new world, right? He says George Washington will not know how to be a king. He will be a tyrant, and they will ask me back. And the prime minister, no, they didn’t have those then, the treasury minister, first lord of the treasury, was he called that?

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: He says I understand that General Washington is resigning his commission and going home. And see, remember, the assumption of George III, if you win and conquer in war, you get to be king. That’s how you get there.

HH: Yeah.

LA: That’s how his ancestors got there, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Or many of his predecessors did. So then he says, he shook himself, the story goes, and said if he does that, he’s the greatest man alive, you see? And that is exactly what he did.

HH: What he does. And that, even if it is a myth, a myth is a story that is intended to believed, but that it has purchase all through the centuries, has given us, you know, people tell stories because they have it somewhere back there as true. And Washington does go home. I live on his property now, on occasion. And I believe that he was called, he wanted to be a farmer, and he just loved being a farmer. And all of, everybody goes home. I don’t know who staffs up the Congress, but Madison goes home, and occasionally shows up. And then things go to hell. And the Potomac goes to hell, especially, in a hurry, and people are charging each other tariffs, etc. So who gets the credit for thinking we can get ourselves out of this? You mentioned Madison’s Vices essay, but who gets the real credit for organizing the Annapolis Conference, or actually, maybe even the Potomac Conference?

LA: Well, you know, first of all, widespread discontent, and I should mention here a very great academic achievement by my colleague, Thomas G. West, whose just published with Cambridge University Press the political theory of the American Revolution. And it’s a lifetime work, and it’s just really great.

HH: Oh.

LA: And I’m halfway through it. And if he falls off in the second half, I’m going to disavow him.

HH: (laughing) The pressure. The pressure.

LA: But it is. He’s a very serious man, and he’s achieved this thing. And the point of the book is the amazing unity of the American Revolution, which means of course, hot disputes all the time. I mean, in the first administration under the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson is using State Department funds to hire a journalist to write dirty articles about Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the Treasury. They fight like cats and dogs. But about the meaning, purpose of the Revolution, and about the kind of government they should have, there is a very wide agreement. They dispute, and they don’t get right at first, because about the Articles, you have to remember that they were just written up in a congress that was afforming out of nothing, and in the midst of war pressure, right? So, and then one of the claims that Madison makes against them in the Vices of the Political System is, and remember, these Articles were really, in most states, really ratified by the state legislature.

HH: Not by the people, yeah.

LA: And that means that the Articles are not, in those states, in a condition to be a superior law to both empower and check the ordinary operations of the government. It doesn’t meet the fundamental criteria. About that fundamental criteria, there is very wide agreement across the board. Now of course, many people, in fact, I fancy all people, Madison and Hamilton included, they know what it’s like to have a remote central government run by a king telling you what to do, that nobody wants to reproduce that. So you’re going to have, and all of that, and just remember, that’s just a form of the fundamental political problem, because the fundamental political problem is how do you assemble enough power to protect what politics is supposed to protect, and yet have it not oppress those things, too? It’s like judo or some trick you’ve got to pull. You’ve got to find a way to make the government strong, in fact, the strongest single earthly thing, it has to be, and yet restrained. And so they’re groping around about that. And also, remember, nobody had ever been, built before, a government responsible entirely to what Madison loved to call the great body of the people. In America, we do not have the mixed regime in which the aristocrats mix in with the commoners, and there’s a monarch, and they all have their way…

HH: And they have the clergy, yeah.

LA: And they divide up their power. We don’t have that. All of the powers are drawn from a single source. How do you draw those powers enough to do the job and not so much that they become formidable to the people? I believe, myself, by the way, to a hark back to last week, that we are facing a crisis about that right now, because the government has become so large that it is an interest of its own.

HH: And you’ve been saying that quite a long time. Will the people rule the government, or will the government rule the people.

LA: That’s…

HH: That is the question on the table.

LA: Churchill’s great dichotomy, he just loved it. There are countries where governments own peoples, and countries where peoples own governments. And you want to live in the second.

HH: The second, yeah.

LA: And so the Articles are failing, and it looks ridiculous. And you should, people should know that if you read the Federalist Papers, which you must, and read the key anti-Federalist Papers, they’re in our Constitution Reader, you will discover that there is a consensus across the board that the central government needs to be strengthened, because why, because they can only requisition, they can only send out an order allocated by your land and the number of your people by a formula, you owe this much for this purpose. And then they don’t pay the money. What are you going to do? And so they can’t get any money, and then, you know, you send to them and say we have a rebellion out in the west…

HH: Massachusetts, yeah.

LA: And in Massachusetts, we have one out in Ohio later, and nobody sends troops. And so they can’t, and the state can’t put these things down.

HH: Yeah, the tribes are warring on the frontier. You have judiciaries of different states holding to different codes of law, and who owns the property, and Great Britain is meddling.

LA: States taxing imports into their ports, which means taxing other states, which they were not to do under the Articles. It says don’t. And states making treaties with other countries on their own…

HH: And the Potomac impassable to trade because it hasn’t been improved, because Maryland and Virginia cannot agree.

LA: That’s right.

HH: And so the first thing to do, something practical, and this harkens back to last week, when you’ve got big problems, do something.

LA: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Get to work on them. So there are two conferences that lead up to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. And both of them, neither of them is attended by all the states, but in general, when they all get together and get to talking, they find fellow feeling on these questions. And they call for a Constitutional Convention, and that’s because of the failure of the Articles.

HH: And when they do that, and that’s where we’re going to pick up next week when we come back to this, we’re going to pick up with Philadelphia in May of 1787, and that’s when people begin to assemble. There, we look backwards with certainty that they’re going to succeed, so we know the miracle in Philadelphia is going to happen. But they ride up from Virginia. I don’t even know how they made a living, honest to goodness. All these people are just coming up to Philadelphia, and they stay there all summer, and they’ve got to pay the tavern people, and you know, they’re, they’ve got tobacco and stuff like that going on. But they really throw themselves into a proposition for which there is no guarantee and a lot of downside. They could stay on their farm, and they get Washington to go, and it connects up with last week when we were talking about this. Washington agrees to go, and that’s very crucial.

LA: Yeah. Can’t do it without him, and you know, they’re, you know, by the way, the founding fathers’ histories are littered with bankruptcies.

HH: Yes.

LA: Those guys are, some of them, even the richest ones would go bankrupt. Gouverneur Morris, you know, these guys are always going broke. Edmund Randolph, you know, and they’ve got…

HH: First attorney general, yeah…

LA: And they’ve got more money than anybody, and then they’re broke.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And you know, and then they, it’s America, right? They start over. But, so that’s right. They, by 1787, now there’s a serious call for a convention, and it goes through the Continental Congress, and, sorry, now the Confederation Congress, it’s called. And the people gather to amend the Articles of Confederation.

HH: But that was, that was what they were supposed to do.

LA: That’s what they were supposed to do. And about Washington, it’s important, so James Madison was a, he really came into his greatness in this period, in my opinion, Hamilton, too. Madison was a squirrely little guy, and had been very close to Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Legislature. And Jefferson was tall and taciturn and in conversation, but fluent in writing, you know, beautiful. We’ve read on the Dialogues the many beautiful things he wrote. Madison is this little logical guy. He’s five foot, you know, two or something. And you know, so think of him beside…

HH: Little Jimmy.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And he’s a student, and he really reasons closely, and one of the first things he reasoned about was we’ve got to get George Washington there. And it’s worth saying something about how he did it.

HH: Wait, we’ll come back after the break in the last segment of this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue. How did he get Washington to Philadelphia for the Convention?

— – – – –

HH: See there, America, you didn’t get rid of me. Even when I’m in Ireland, I’m in your head, because I pretaped this conversation with Dr. Larry Arnn last week so that we could get to the Constitutional Convention when I get back, and he’ll have time to prepare. He doesn’t know much about that. And so he’s going to have to (laughing)

LA: Think it through.

HH: (laughing) Yeah, think it through. So anyway, we were talking about James Madison has got a call for a convention, but he’s got to get Washington there. And how does he do that?

LA: Well, Washington is the greatest man alive. It’s sort of what Winston Churchill became in England, and maybe in the world, in 1940 and after. And that’s, you know, recognized, right? And so they can’t, and so Washington is skittish, and this thing comes up about the Society of the Cincinnatus, because what that is, is a bunch of veterans of the Revolutionary War who get together, named after this Roman statesman, who refused power after winning victories. And so this society has these meetings, and of course, Washington is the hero, the one they really want. And it gets in the press that there are criticisms, that it’s thought to be a burgeoning aristocratic movement. And Washington does not like people talking bad about him. And so he declines to go to a meeting of the Society of the Cincinnatus. And then he thinks that I don’t want to embarrass them, either. So if I go somewhere else during the time of their meeting, it’ll look like I snubbed them. And so he allows that he’s not going to go.

HH: To the Convention.

LA: To the Convention.

HH: Where we need him.

LA: Yeah. And so James Madison gets on his horse, you know, with a stepladder, probably, and he rides to Mount Vernon, and he talks him into it.

HH: And it’s a long way.

LA: Yeah.

HH: It’s not like an easy, you know, I’ll run down the street for coffee. No, it’s a long way.

LA: Where are you going, says Dolly, and he says I’m going to go get George. (laughing)

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so it’s, so he does talk him into it, and then Washington goes. And that means, you see, because remember this point. The problem we’re trying to solve, the problem we’re trying to solve today, is the same one then. They need to assemble power to govern and use force against evils and enemies, and they need a system for it to be restrained. And George Washington is the actual living personification of that thing. He’s got to be there.

HH: And when they get there, they need to have a starting point. The Virginia plan is that starting point. So Madison did not arrive unprepared to propose.

LA: Yeah, so Senator Lee, a force of nature, I promised I’d mention his book, A Force of Nature, he’s really great, he’s a very important man, and he’s got another book out, and…

HH: Written Out of History.

LA: Written Out of History.

HH: Yeah, it’s Written Out of History.

LA: And he’s talking about the heroes who are not the main ones.

HH: Senator Mike Lee of Utah, yeah.

LA: Yeah, of Utah. And he’s commenting that of course those who excepted too much power in Washington shaped the Constitution very much, too, and I will add to his point that those who suspected too much in power in Washington included everyone. They all did that, right? And so they show up with a plan written chiefly by Madison and Hamilton that would allow the federal government to legislate in all cases whatsoever, not enumerated powers. That was their phrase. But in addition, that both houses of the legislature would be elected by popular vote. And that is the first concept.

HH: That’s the starting point.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Now I want to just lay this. We have two minutes left. At the Annapolis convention, where both Hamilton and Madison met the year prior to the Constitutional Convention, did they conspire then? I don’t know the history well enough. Did they conspire then to pull off we’ll open with a big bid for power, and then back up? Or did they just say let’s get everybody there and we’ll do the best we can?

LA: There’s no evidence of that. They want, you know, and the point that people must understand, the reason this is worth studying is that it’s not just that it is the most successful ting of its kind in history. That’s not an accident, because what they did all summer long was reason through, and they taught each other a lot. And we have extensive notes about the way the debate went.

HH: Made by Madison, yeah.

LA: And then when you get to the Federalist Papers, the way they write about the document after the Convention is different from the things they were writing in their letters to one another before the Convention. They learned a lot. And above all, I think what they did was invent a way to use the old attachment and the serious authorities of the states as another element in a system to both assemble and divide power.

HH: When we come back in two weeks, as we’re both off next week, we will begin the conversation about that Convention and how it lasted and how it went. So you may want to read Lynne Cheney’s James Madison. You may want to read Miracle At Philadelphia, or Dr. Larry Arnn’s The Founders’ Key. There are a lot of good books about those extraordinary four months, but they are an extraordinary four months, and we’ll do that. And then we’ll move into the argument about how it got passed. But we’re going to talk actually about the Constitution. It’s a marvelous thing.

LA: Yeah, I know.

HH: Because we’re actually going to read it and talk about it.

LA: There you go. Let’s bring that up. Yeah.

HH: And then you know, that’s going to be a revelation to some people out there, Steelers fans especially. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you.

End of interview.


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