Polarized rhetoric nothing newAdmittedly, it is distressing to witness a discussion of public issues in an environment of fear, hate, deceit, misrepresentation and malice, just to name a few acrimonious characteristics of today’s policy arguments. Observers lament this polarization as though it was something new, but it isn’t.
By: Lloyd Omdahl, The Dickinson Press
Admittedly, it is distressing to witness a discussion of public issues in an environment of fear, hate, deceit, misrepresentation and malice, just to name a few acrimonious characteristics of today’s policy arguments. Observers lament this polarization as though it was something new, but it isn’t.
When the adoption of the U.S. Constitution was before the citizenry in 1787-88, the dialogue was peppered with the same rancor that marks today’s debates. Yes, this is the same Constitution for which generations of Americans later shed their blood to defend and preserve. After two centuries of implementation, the Constitution is universally revered in America.
Not so in 1787-88. Our beloved Constitution was attacked by a formidable band of “anti-federalists” as a terrible document. They predicted all sorts of dire consequences down the road.
In Pennsylvania, Samuel Bryan, writing as “Centinel,” warned that the Constitution was nothing but “a daring attempt to establish a despotic aristocracy among freemen.”
Bryan was joined by Melancton Smith, writing as “The Federal Farmer,” who alleged that the new government could not function without resorting to military force which would “soon destroy all elective governments in the country, produce anarchy, or establish despotism.”
The “Pennsylvania Minority” charged that the legislative powers granted to Congress “would be amply sufficient to annihilate state governments, and swallow them up in the grand vortex of general empire.”
Numbered among the anti-federalists was the champion of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry of Virginia, who asserted that “this Constitution is said to have some beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horridly frightful: Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting: it squints toward monarchy.”
Some critics attacked the Constitution as unworkable because the country was too large for a republic. Robert Yates of New York, a delegate who abandoned the Constitutional Convention in disgust, said that “a free republic cannot succeed over a country of such immense extent, containing such a number of inhabitants…”
Besides, Delegate George Mason of Virginia added, it wouldn’t work correctly. The Electoral College would seldom end up electing the president because “19 times out of 20 the president would be chosen by the Senate, an improper body for the purpose.”
Well, the anti-federalists were wrong. Their erroneous prognostications should be a lesson for today’s naysayers who attack new suggestions with the same radical rhetoric and absolute certainty demonstrated by the anti-federalists. The naysayers of 1787-88 almost prevented the adoption of a constitution that has become a model for new democracies around the world. They should give us cause to temper our extremism.