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Dr. Paul Rahe on the Hillsdale Dialogue Discussing the Formation of the Constitutional Convention

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HH: The last radio hour of a very wild week in the life of the United States is the Hillsdale Dialogue on the Hugh Hewitt Show, an hour that we put aside for a 30,000 feet look at what is going on from the perspective of classical historians, from the perspective of Constitutionalists and originalists, and all of those who work and live in and around Hillsdale College. for everything Hillsdale. You ought to sign up for the newsletter, Imprimis. You ought to take their online courses. Usually, Dr. Larry Arnn joins me, but occasionally, we get lucky and Dr. Paul Rahe joins us. He is, of course, a professor at Hillsdale. He has been writing so many books, his most recent one on Sparta, The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins and Grand Strategy. He’s previously written about soft despotism and democracy’s death, about Machiavelli, about the ancients and the moderns and political theorists. He’s a great guy to have on, on a week where we might think that Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws is gone from the country. Paul Rahe, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you, Dr. Rahe.

PR: It’s good to be here.

HH: I am curious how someone like you who takes a long view from Sparta to the convention that gave us our Constitution to today thinks about a week as crazy as this one.

PR: Well, it’s, you know, in some ways, it’s built into the Constitutional system. I’m teaching a course in the fall on the Constitutional Convention, which I haven’t done in 30 years.

HH: Oh, wow.

PR: So it’s a, and you know, it’ll be the anniversary, this summer is the anniversary of the Constitutional Convention. 1787 to 2017. And you know, if you read the Constitution, and if you go through the Constitutional Convention, there’s something missing. There’s something they didn’t think of. They’re very impressive, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing in there about political parties.

HH: Correct. Factions, right? Just the Federalist Papers talked about factions.

PR: Sure. That, they expected. But the notion that there would be standing political parties, they didn’t think of it, and they certainly didn’t want it. But it turned out to be necessary to make the system work. And the reason is with the separation of powers between legislative power, executive power and judicial power, but also with bicameralism affecting the legislative power, coordinating action becomes extremely difficult.

HH: Now Dr. Rahe, one of the frustrations people have this morning when the effort to repeal Obamacare fails in the middle of the night because three Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona joined the Democrats to kill it so that the Senate cannot pass its version and thus go to a conference with the House to try and reconcile the bill, is that the Republicans never seem to deliver. I, and there are some objections to the various Republican shenanigans that went on, but like the Constitutional Convention, it’s a mess until the end. You really can’t judge the product of a deliberative process until you get to the end. What Collins, Murkowski and McCain did last night is the equivalent of leaving Philadelphia in August of 1787 and saying ah, too much trouble.

PR: Yeah, I agree. You know, what allows the system to work is a measure of coordination between the various branches that’s affected by the political parties. The Democrats have a pretty effective political party. They work together rather well. The Republicans don’t. And part of the story here is our parties have a way of drifting between two poles – parties of patronage and parties of principle. All of the political parties in the history of the United States have been parties of patronage. That is to say there’s a kind of conspiracy to get together to divvy up the goodies between our people. But there are moments when the parties become something a little different, parties of principle. And you could see this, by the way, in the birth of the Republican Party, which just comes from nowhere and suddenly you’ve got a party of principle coming out of the woods uniting former Whigs and former Democrats behind a set of principles, because there’s a large number of people who are deeply concerned with certain questions.

HH: So I think it’s useful. It’s useful before we go to that, where do these parties come from, to review how messy is this Convention, because people who think Obamacare repeal is messy, they really don’t know the Constitutional Convention very well, because that was, my gosh, that was on the pinnacle of death many times. And in fact, I think if we look at it, you could say it failed at Annapolis in 1786, right?

PR: Yes.

HH: It didn’t, it failed for a year and a half.

PR: Well, and you know, even before that. The idea of the Constitutional Convention is proposed by Alexander Hamilton in 1780 and 1781.

HH: Oh, really?

PR: And in a series of essays called the Continentalist, which are just wonderful, and the entire idea of what the federal government was going to be is laid out in those essays. You know, we think of James Madison as the father of the Constitution. Well, the father of the Constitutional Convention is Alexander Hamilton. And he’s got the vision of what a national government will do. So he’s as important as James Madison, and I think the third figure that’s of very great importance is John Dickenson.

HH: Go backwards, because I don’t know this well. But I love it. I find it very encouraging on a morning when people are weary to say it took Hamilton seven years to get to the Convention, and it took two more years to get into operation.

PR: Yes.

HH: He did not flag in that effort.

PR: No, no. He continues to push. And he’s, look, he’s in the grips. He’s not the only one. There’s a whole group of people. Gouveneur Morris is another one, and Robert Morris is a third, and George Washington is actually a fourth. These people see everything from the perspective of the nation. Most of them have served in the Continental lines, so they’ve had the experience of fighting the war without any money to fight it, and with an ineffective federal government at the center. So from their perspective, there’s been a crisis since 1776. And it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. And so in 1780 and 1781, these people are backing Hamilton, who is laying out the argument that you simply have to do this or we will fail. You have to pull things together. And at the heart of the matter is the question of finance. It’s not an accident Alexander Hamilton ends up as secretary of the Treasury. It’s not an accident that Robert Morris is very much concerned under the Continental Congress with questions of finance. The, to actually defend the country in the Revolutionary War, but after the Revolutionary War, takes money, and there’s no financing mechanism for the Continental Congress. They call on the states to provide money, and the states act like Republican senators. They do so when they feel like it. And when they don’t, they don’t. so there’s a kind of disaster developing, and these essays are written before the end of the Revolutionary War. And something, had the Revolutionary War gone on further, something might have been done in the early 1780s. But when we win the war, the pressure’s off.

HH: Yeah.

PR: And then the pressure begins to build up again, because the country can’t pay its debts. It can’t enforce the Peace of Paris on the states. There’s the problem of the Western territories which could lead to a civil war between the former colonies, which have conflicting claims in the Western territories. There’s a whole series of issues that could cause the Union to collapse. And the Continental Congress meets fairly often, they don’t have a quorum. So they can’t even do, even within the limits of the Articles of Confederation, they can’t operate, because they don’t have a quorum a good bit of the time.

HH: Yeah, yeah. And so, but they don’t, they don’t leave town. I mean, Hamilton does go back and forth. I know summer of 1787 pretty well. There have been a couple of great books about it. By the way, what do you think is the best book on the Convention itself?

PR: There’s a book called The Philosophy of the American Constitution. It’s out of print. It was written by an American scholar who later migrated to Israel. And it takes the Convention and it looks at it from the perspective of regime, which is to say the construction of a regime. And what it shows you is there was a lot less negotiation at the Convention than there was deliberation.

HH: We come back to that distinction and how they got there and who was there in that room. If you’ve never been to Philadelphia, brave the city and go over to Constitution Hall. It’s an amazing place to consider what they did there that summer, especially after a disaster for the country, the failure to repeal Obamacare. Paul Rahe is giving us a little hope on the Hillsdale Dialogue. Stay tuned.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Rahe, as we have this conversation, I’m sending out tweets, the idea of the Constitutional Convention proposed in 1780, 1781 by Alexander Hamilton, it took seven years to get to Philly, two more to get to ratification. And a young reporter from Politico writes this is a very Scaramucciesque historical comparison, Hugh Hewitt. Now Dr. Rahe, I don’t know if you know Anthony Scaramucci. He’s in the news today for a very vulgar, obscene, profane attack on Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. And he’s not known for patience. But I actually think the idea of political patience is exactly what people should take from what you’re going to teach next year, the Constitutional Convention.

PR: Yes, yes. You know, I drew a distinction between negotiation and deliberation, and I think it might be helpful. We negotiate when we’re interested in number one. I want something, you want something, we work out a deal where I get a little of my something and you get a little of your something. We deliberate when there’s a common good. So for example, my wife and I might negotiate about who takes out the garbage and who cuts the lawn, and who does the cooking. But we deliberate about the well-being of our children, whom we both love. Often times, people speak about the Constitutional Convention, and emphasize negotiation, the so-called Connecticut Compromise, the compromise over the question of slavery and so forth. Most of what goes on there, however, is deliberation. There are 55 people present representing 12 states, every state except Rhode Island. 42 had served as delegates to the Continental Congress. Others had served in the Continental Army. These are people committed to the survival of the nation. And they’re worried that it won’t survive. So they’ve got a common interest. And what goes on is the question of how can we structure a government that will provide a modicum of wisdom and be compatible with the requirement for consent? How can we make this thing work? And so when they are arguing back and forth, they’re trying to figure the thing out. You know, if you’re married and you have children, you’ll end up in a discussion where you’ll disagree with one another once in a while. And sometimes, what happens is you decide to sleep on it. And the next morning, you wake up and you reverse positions. You’d argued X, and your wife had argued Y. Now, you’re arguing Y, because you think she was right the previous night. She’s been persuaded by you. Now that happens when you listen to one another. In negotiations, you don’t so much listen to one another as probe for weakness. In deliberation, you actually listen to one another. So if you go through Madison’s notes and the other notes that were taken during the federal convention, the striking feature is people changing their minds. I tell my students the only proof that you have a mind is that you change it once in a while when you’re confronted with an argument better than your own argument. So they’re working their way through this. They’re all committed to taking the federal government under the Articles of Confederation and creating a national government that will be adequate to the needs of the Union without the doing away with local prerogative in most regards. And they’re guided mainly by reading Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, which poses a real problem for them. Can you establish and sustain a republic on an extended territory? And Montesquieu’s original conclusion is no. When you have a large territory, it will result in the concentration of power in a few hands. There will be emergencies that required rapid movement, but the main thing is you’ve got a government out of sight and out of mind, because it’s far away.

HH: Yeah, I’ll come back from that. I don’t want you to abandon that. Hold onto the Montesquieu Spirit of Laws, because it is an experiment that was underway. It took forever. And on a grim morning for Republicans, I just want them to remember, it takes forever sometimes. It takes a decade, sometimes. You don’t just walk off. Stay with me.

— – — —

HH: So Dr. Rahe, if we could to set this up, and I know we have the backdrop of breaking news. We have the backdrop of the failure of repeal and replace, the chaos in the Republican Party. But I want people to understand that from 1780, from the conclusion of the Revolutionary War up until the ratification of the Constitutional Convention, all was not right with the country. It took a long time to get this organized, and the Convention particularly to get going and get completed. Can you give the historical background?

PR: Well, the fighting is over in 1781 at Yorktown. It takes a couple of years, about a year and a half, to get the negotiations and the Peace of Paris in 1783. And you know, everyone relaxes. And when you relax, you don’t attend to problems. And there’s just a whole series of them, the most important of them, because it contributes to just about everything else, is finance. A great deal of money had been borrowed in ten thousand different ways to support the American effort in the Revolutionary War. And there is no clear cut mechanism for paying it back. Now the problem with this is if you do not pay your debts, the next time there’s a crisis and you need to borrow money, no one’s going to loan to you. And most of this money is owned by, owed by the various governments in the United States to Americans. But a fair amount of it is owed to the French and to the Spanish, and to the Dutch. There’s a second thing. We made certain agreements at the Peace of Paris, and the states aren’t keeping those agreements, and the consequence is the British aren’t keeping the agreement on their side. They’ve got troops on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains, and they’ve kept them there. They’re required to pull them out. And they kept them there, because the Americans aren’t keeping their part of the agreement. So what you’ve got is a period of drift between 1783 to 1787 in which it looks as if things are coming apart. There’s some reason for hope, and they have to do with the fact that one by one, states are turning over their claims to the Western lands to the west of the Appalachian Mountains to the federal government. But if the federal government doesn’t survive, those claims will be renewed, and those claims conflict with one another. So you could end up with a war between New York and Pennsylvania and Virginia, for example, and, say, North Carolina over those Western lands. So you, there is a, those people who are following things, which is a minority, most people are living locally and thinking locally, but there is a class of people who served in the Continental Congress, who served in the Continental Line, or for some other reason, think in a larger way, and they’re increasingly afraid. And then things begin to fall apart in the states. Shays’ Rebellion is the most obvious example.

HH: In Massachusetts, yeah.

PR: Yeah, and that has to do with attempts at the state level to pay back or to provide for the paying back of the state debts. And so it has to do with taxes. It’s an uprising against taxes. And you know, they try to send a militia in Massachusetts to put down Shays’ Rebellion, and the militiamen join the rebellion. So you end up with a kind of national army taking care of it. And it’s this that jolts the Continental Congress into accepting the proposal that is put forward by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton out of the Annapolis Convention, that there be a general convention called to propose a revision of the Articles of Confederation. And 12 of the states comply and appoint people to go to that convention, and you know, it opens up in the summer of 1787, a hot, sweltering summer in Philadelphia, which can be a hot, sweltering place. And they meet under the presidency of George Washington, and everybody who is anybody is there except for three men. John Jay is missing, Thomas Jefferson is in France, and John Adams is in England. Those are the three major figures who are not present at this convention. Hamilton’s there, Madison’s there, John Dickenson is there, Rufus King is there. And you can simply go down the list of notables. Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris that it’s an assembly of demigods. And they get together, and for the most part, they put aside their parochial concerns, and they ask the question how can we make this work? And they’re in agreement on two things to start with, though the details have to be worked out. The two things they’re in agreement on is you really do need a national government, and therefore, if you’re going to have a proper government, which the Articles of Confederation was not, you’re going to have to have a separation of powers.

HH: Yeah. And…

PT: The second thing that they agree on…

HH: Go ahead.

PT: …is there has to be federalism, which is to say most prerogatives have to be left to the states. So you know, what goes to the federal government are things like national defense…

HH: The currency…

PT: Negotiations of treaties.

HH: Yeah, yeah. Immmigration.

PT: Yes, so there’s a whole set of things that they know have to be in national hands. And the question is how do you get a government that is trustworthy? And so the initial battle, they’re unanimous that it’s going to be bicameral. They have a vote on it, and everybody votes for it. Then the question is what about the lower house? And there is an extensive debate upon that that is ultimately resolved with direct election. And once that has been decided, direct election and that it’ll be based on population, once that’s decided, then the question comes what do you do with the Senate? Do you have the Senate elected by the House? That was one proposal. Do you have it elected by the state legislatures the way the Continental Congress was elected by the state legislatures? And do you have representation by population or representation by states so that every state would be equal? The man who comes to the convention opposed to James Madison on this question, absolutely insistent that there be equal representation for the states, is John Dickenson. That’s his main concern. And he wins. We talk about the Connecticut Compromise, and it looks like it’s a compromise between the Virginia plan, and it’s something proposed by people from New Jersey and Connecticut, but the proposal from New Jersey and Connecticut was never serious. The real question is equal representation of the states, and John Dickenson wins, and James Madison almost walks out of the Convention over this.

HH: Oh, interesting, so like John McCain last night faced a choice. Was he going to get what he wants…

PR: Yeah.

HH: …has to decide whether to leave or to stay and work.

PR: That’s right. And there are three people who become anti-federalists because of this – Elbridge Gerry, he of the gerrymander, from Massachusetts, George Mason from Virginia, and for a time, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, the governor who had presented the original Virginia plan. So this was an issue that in the end comes down to a vote, and some people lose, and some people win on the thing.

HH: But they don’t leave. I just think it’s so timely. Madison almost walks out, Paul Rahe, but he doesn’t.

PR: Right.

HH: He keeps working, because it’s the end product. Last night, they walked out. They wouldn’t go to conference. It’s so doggone frustrating to me.

PR: Yes, yes. Well, look, they had six years in the wilderness to figure out a plan, and they didn’t. In other words, the Republicans opposed Obamacare, they promised to repeal it and replace it, but they didn’t work out a plan in the interim. They did not use those six years well.

HH: No, that’s because they never expected to win. I mean, that is the element of surprise. The patriots expected to win the Revolution, though it was dark, so they had a plan. Then, they expected to be left alone, and I guess to be able to prosper on their own loosely confederated, and it didn’t work. It took a lot of pain, and maybe that’s what we’re going to have to have, is a lot more pain under Obamacare.

PR: Well, there’s going to be that pain. There’s no question it’s going to collapse. And the Democrats will have a proposal, which is single payer.

HH: Yeah.

PR: You know, move to socialized medicine in the full-blown sense of the word.

HH: And it’ll be a disaster. A quick question, Paul Rahe, there is this dust up in the White House within the Article II administration, and it’s profane and it’s vulgar. Were the men of 1787 to 1789, and they were all men, were they profane and vulgar?

PR: No, no, but they did fight. I mean, within the Washington administration, there was a battle, ultimately, a battle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. And there was skullduggery, which is to say Jefferson founded a political party, which nobody believed in at the time, in order to counter Hamilton. And when George Washington asked him about it, Jefferson wrote a letter to George Washington in which he lied. There’s just no way around it.

HH: Yeah.

PR: So there were bitter, developments led to bitterness, not so much to profanity. But then, you know, in the battles that took place, especially in the election of 1800 where it’s Jefferson versus his good friend John Adams, what’s going on in the press, you know, not Jefferson himself acting, but others acting on his behalf and at his behest, it’s pretty ugly. Profane, I wouldn’t call it, but…

HH: But ugly, ugly. Good to remember. Paul Rahe, Dr. Paul Rahe, always a pleasure. Find him at, and find everything Hillsdale at Every one of our conversations, I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot about how that Convention proceeded as we move to what it eventually produced, the Constitution, in the next several months of the Hillsdale Dialogue. Thank you, Dr. Rahe.

End of interview.


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