Working on some longer pieces about 18th and 19th century American political history. What makes it endlessly fascinating to me is how much of today’s politics mirrors the factions and issues of then. In many ways there is a continuum from the 1790s to today. And then there are the debates over slavery and finance that seem unthinkable today.
The thing I find most fascinating about the 1787-1789 period when the Constitution was written and adopted, is that it was, as we imagine, a kind of magic time. But not for why most of us think. The timing was intensely critical. Many of the signors signed off based on trust, handshake deals between men of good faith. Just a few years later politics had divided the founding fathers so badly that it would have been impossible to imagine the same result.
The key thing to remember is that the founding fathers were not some monolithic group, they did not necessarily like each other, or agree on issues, or even agree with themselves – they changed their minds, evolved on issues over time. They really did think of it as an experiment, and by no means did they consider the product of their deliberations finished or perfect. They knew they couldn’t have gotten it all right, and feared that they got some of it very wrong. The same men created the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution and went back to the drawing board when it became apparent it was a failure.
They were fallible men, not gods. They were no better or worse than the radical politicians of any age. But make no mistake they were radicals, revolutionaries, liberals determined to upset the existing power structure. There was nothing conservative about anyone who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The only conservatives in this story wore red coats.
That some of them became more conservative over time as they contemplated and executed the experiment was a source of endless frustration to others of them and is the wellspring of many of today’s frustrations as well.