National security v. elites at the Constitutional Convention

We tend to think that our politics in the 21st century are uniquely characterized by fears that powerful elites are in control of the government, robbing the people of their voice. But whenever this fear is raised, and people question those in power, those in power turn the conversation toward national security, justifying their grasping power by saying it is necessary to protect the nation.

But all this is as old as the United States. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution claimed that it empowered elites to run the government at the expense of the “real” people, mainly the yeoman farmers. Jefferson was of this group. The problem as they saw it was that by centralizing the government in Washington, the Constitution took representatives out of their states, far from the poverty and problems of their constituents. In Washington, surrounded by men of privilege, those representatives to Congress would start making laws that benefited the rich.

The Federalists who supported the Constitution decided that the best way to win this argument was to ignore it and turn the subject to national defense. A strong centralized government was needed, they said, to maintain national security by observing treaties, protecting American shipping, and dealing with other national governments. In fact, the majority of the enumerated powers of the federal government laid out in the Constitution have to do with national defense.

At a time when the young United States were vulnerable to outside attack or harrassment by more powerful nations, this was a strong argument, and it won out over fear of elitism.

The difference between then and now is that the security of the country was not guaranteed by violation of the rights of the people, or of the checks and balances of the government. The early federal government observed the terms and spirit of the Constitution Congress had written, and accepted the Bill of Rights the people wrote (through their state assemblies) as an addendum or even a corrective to that Constitution.

Let’s hope we are returning to that system, our original and founding principle of democracy.