The elevation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and the fact that that court will now have five Trump thinkalikes; the role of the armed and dangerous “militias” and the “precious Second Amendment rights”; the view of the majority of the (in)Justices of the Supreme Court that all decisions must be based on the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution – all of this once again should focus our attention on what was their intent. That can only be understood by understanding who the framers of the Constitution really were and what was happening at that time.
The American Revolution (1765-1783) lasted 18 long years. No revolution, especially not a victorious one, will leave the population untouched. In this case, it left the white American colonial population not only in a state of ferment but also impoverished. Largely small farmers (we will get to the slaves in a minute), they were in debt to both the state governments (whose taxes they largely couldn’t pay) and to the merchants and bankers who had loaned them money. Some were actually put in debtors prison for inability to pay those debts.
The indebted small farmers sought to get state legislatures to issue paper money, which would make it easier for them to repay their debts.
The spirit of armed rebellion also lived on, and there was a series of armed uprisings culminating in Shays Rebellion in 1787. In that rebellion, the impoverished farm laborer and former soldier in the Revolution, Daniel Shays, gathered a force of hundreds of armed men and marched on the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. His intent was to seize the arms there and organize a general revolution.
This armed revolt of private citizens was ultimately put down by the state controlled militias, and Daniel Shays had to flee for his life to Vermont. Vermont refused the attempts of the state of Massachusetts to force Vermont to return him, and Shays stayed in Vermont for several years until he was granted a pardon.
In those days the ruling “one percent” – the wealthy minority – were largely the merchants, bankers and slave owners. These events convinced them that the Articles of Confederation under which the states were governed was inadequate for several reasons:
First and foremost, the federal government lacked the power to levy taxes and, therefore, lacked the ability to build an army.
Second, since the states issued their own money, lack of one stable currency not only made debt collection in real terms uncertain; it also made interstate commerce uncertain.
Their problem was how to get a new form of government organized that would be accepted by the majority of the citizens (bearing in mind that only white males were really full citizens, and even then in most states only if they owned some property). So what they did was organize for the different legislatures to elect delegates to a convention in Philadelphia whose purpose supposedly was to revise the Articles of Confederation. Revise, not write an entirely new document. Nevertheless, when the delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787, they ran away with the supposed purpose and wrote an entirely new document – the Constitution of the United States of America. What were the views of the writers of the Constitution? What was their real purpose?
Much of this can be seen in the papers they exchanged called the Federalist Papers. James Madison was one of the foremost contributors to those papers. In Federalist Paper 51 Madison wrote: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society…. The causes of faction cannot be removed.” Bear in mind that many small, white farmers were in effect without property since they were in debt. So were the workers in the cities.
As to the slaves: Some claim that the fact that the slaves were considered 3/5 of a person because that was how they were counted in the population. That is untrue. In any real sense, they were not considered as people at all. The 3/5 rule was a compromise between the slave owners in the largely rural South and the merchants and bankers in the North. It was aimed at ensuring that neither ruling class dominated the other.
In another sense, though, the “founding fathers” well recognized that slaves were human beings and dangerous ones at that. In Federalist Paper Number 43, Madison commented on the danger they posed when he wrote that “in the tempestuous scenes of civil violence (the slaves) may emerge… and give a superiority of strength to any party with which they may associate themselves.” In other words, he and the rest of the ruling class were keenly aware of the extreme danger should some new rebellion like Shays Rebellion widen and merge with a slave uprising.
Such an uprising would threaten to be completely out of control, partly because under the Articles of Confederation the federal government could not levy taxes and therefore was largely hamstrung as far as building a national army. Remember that the ruling class had to rely entirely on a state militia to put down Shays Rebellion. That was why one of he major powers the US Constitution gave the new federal government was to levy taxes.
So, the problem was how to build a new government that the masses of white men could not control? Several of the top officers in the former Revolutionary Army combined into the Order of Cincinnati. They advocated a monarchy. However, wiser heads realized that any attempt to create a monarchy would be like pouring gasoline on a fire. Leave it to Madison to lay out the problem and craft a solution: “To secure the public good and private rights [of the wealthy minority] against the danger of such a faction [of the impoverished majority] and at the same time preserve the spirit [italics added] and the form of popular government is then the great object…” In other words, to ensure that the rich minority (the ruling classes) could control the government without making it too obvious (like through a monarchy).
The answer lay in the structure of the new government.
Madison again (in Federal Paper #51): “The only answer that can be given is… by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may… be the means of keeping each other in their proper places…. It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different [economic] interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the [rich] minority will be insecure.” So it was that as Madison explained in the same paper “The House of Representatives being to be elected immediately by the people, the Senate by the State legislatures (this was only changed in 1913 because it became such an unwieldy source of corruption), the President would by electors chosen for that purpose by the people, there would be little probability of a common [economic] interest to cement these different branches in a prediliction for any particular class of electors.” Not only that, but Senators served for six years and only one third of them were elected in any one election. This made it impossible for any insurgent movement to constitutionally capture the federal government in any one election.
Nowadays, the talk is of the “genius” of the “Founding Fathers”. In his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, James Beard explains where that “genius” lay: “We cannot help marvel at their skill…. Their leading idea was to break up the attacking forces at the starting point: the source of political authority for the several branches of the government…. And the crowning counterweight to ‘an interested and over-bearing [impoverished] majority,’ as Madison phrased it, was secured in the peculiar position assigned to the judiciary, and the use of the sanctity and mysstery of the law as a foil to democratic attacks.” That is the role for those black-robed oh-so impartial (in)Justices, who are appointed for life.
That is what the division of powers is really all about!
Coney Barrett and the others of the menacing majority like to claim they rest on the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. At the same time, they oppose any restrictions on private gun owners, basing themselves on the “precious Second Amendment”. What hypocrisy! The Second Amendment was aimed at establishing state-run militias – the same militias that were used to put down popular armed uprisings. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the rights of private individuals to own guns! In the aftermath of Reconstruction, the Second Amendment
didn’t get in the way of disarming the newly freed slaves. Nor did it after the Black Panther Party marched into the California state legislature, arms in hand in 1967. No, that event was used to further restrict the right to carry guns, and the National Rifle Association and such groups offered not a word of objection. In other words, all this Second Amendment rights nonsense is purely aimed at strengthening armed and dangerous and usually racist right wing vigilante groups. (This is not meant to support or oppose restrictions on gun ownership; it’s just to say that all the hoopla about “Second Amendment rights” is historically and legally completely wrong.)
As to the general view and intent of the framers of the US Constitution, we will let George Washington – considered to be the richest man in the country at the time – have the last word. He commented: “the tumultuous populace of the large cities are ever to be dreaded.”
Additional Reading: For those who would like to read more on this history, Oaklandsocialist recommends two books in particular.
- First is Charles Beards’ An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. It is a detailed history of how the ruling classes made sure that their economic interests were expressed through the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
- Second is Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. This book clearly shows the struggles of the working class and the oppressed throughout the history of this country.
- Finally, we recommend the Oaklandsocialist pamphlet What is Revolution? This pamphlet uses concrete examples to show how the capitalist class controls the state and under what conditions and through what means the working class can create their own state.