One of our favorite appeals to authority in the US, when discussing politics, is to invoke the image of mythical figures from 1787 making grand speeches that support our current views on any given policy in 2011. I use the term “mythical” here because, while the individuals certainly existed, what we think about their attitudes, ideas and opinions are largely imaginary. To illustrate this point, I’ll detail below some of the things our founders actually wanted, but didn’t get.
James Madison: Generally regarded as the “Father of the Constitution”, both for his efforts during the convention as well as for his contributions to the Federalist Papers, Madison wanted both parts of the legislature to be based on the population of a state, not the 2 senators per state model we have now. Moreover, he wanted the Senators to be elected by the lower house, not directly by the people they would represent. He also wanted the President to be elected by the legislature, not by the people. Madison’s plan also gave the federal legislature the authority to veto any state laws.
Alexander Hamilton: Next to Madison, Hamilton was probably the most influential person in shaping our early nation and, with Madison, was one of the primary authors of the Federalist Papers. Of the four major plans proposed in Philadelphia, his comes closest to what would eventually become our Constitution. Under Hamilton’s plan, both the President and the Senate would be chosen by a group of electors who would themselves be chosen by the people directly (currently the President is chosen by the Electoral College, and originally Senators were chosen by the state legislatures). However, under this plan both the President and Senators would be elected to life terms, instead of 4 and 6 year terms as we eventually got. Also under this plan the states would completely lose their sovereignty and become subordinate to the national government. State governors would be appointed by the national government and, like Madison’s plan, state laws could be vetoed by the national government.
Charles Pickney: The delegate from South Carolina proposed a plan similar to Madison’s in that the people would directly chose the members of the lower house of the legislature, who would then chose the members of the upper house. Unlike Madison’s plan, however, the members of the upper house would be chosen from 4 different “regions” of the country, instead of from the different states. Collectively the national legislature would elect the President. The national legislature would also be responsible for choosing the President’s cabinet. Instead of a national armed forces, the legislature would be given the authority to regulate the various state militias. The national legislature would also act as the court of last appeal under Pickney’s plan, the role currently given to the US Supreme Court.
William Paterson: Known as the “New Jersey Plan”, this is the least recognizable in comparison to our current Constitution. It’s wasn’t an unusual plan, however. It was actually just some small modifications to the existing Articles of Confederation. Of any of the plans, this was the most conservative, and yet to propose such a plan today would have your thoroughly mocked and labeled crazy or “fringe”. Under Paterson’s plan only the state governments would be represented, the people would have no direct ability to chose their national representatives. The executive branch would be chosen by the national congress, and would consist of one or more Presidents at a time, with terms of 1 year. Under this plan the Executive branch would have a role in writing the laws, and the legislative branch would serve as the court of appeals.
So the next time you are tempted to tell someone what the founders intended, or the next time someone feels the need to invoke their approval of some policy position, be sure to remember that not only did they not agree with each other, none of them actually came into the convention wanting a government like what we eventually got in the form of the US Constitution.