The Power of Fear: Shaping the US Constitution

By the time key revolutionary figures and representatives from the twelve participating states began gathering in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, the newly liberated American colonies were in dire need of a more permanent and effective form of government. Since the end of the American Revolution, distrust, civil discord, and a general lack of congruity between the thirteen states had threatened to tear the newly independent union apart from within. The Constitution was to be drafted in a trial-by-fire of heated debates and resistance stemming from the nearly unanimous fear of tyranny associated with more centralized government; the very freedom so hard-won under empowering new ideals of liberty and the fiery rhetoric of revolution and equality was at stake. The United States Constitution was a necessary solution to ward off looming disasters promised by civil strife, economic depression and the sheer inadequacy of American government under the Articles of Confederation, but its creation and the men most responsible for it were influenced as much by the irrepressible fear of oppressive patrimony and autocratic government apparatus as by visions of unity and reform.

In her book A Brilliant Solution, historian Carol Berkin describes in detail the rifts emerging in early post-revolutionary America, and the inability of its government to effectively combat them. As Berkin explains, the government warily established under the Articles of Confederation “grew more impotent, more lethargic, and more incompetent with every passing day” (6). One of the most threatening factors contributing to this stagnation was the “fierce localism” which had come to dominate the American political landscape after the war (6-7). Independent states had a great deal of local autonomy, and there was very little – if any – sense of loyalty or unity among them; as “competition and exploitation reigned,” economic depression was on the rise. “Our treasury was empty,” notes Berkin, “debts to foreign governments and debts to our own citizens could not be paid,” and discontented farmers and working class citizens began violent uprisings, with “no police force of any sort, military or civil,” to enforce order (5). In the absence of a cohesive federal government, especially one with powers of taxation, aggressive and oftentimes vindictive policymaking between the thirteen states set the pace for most active legislation, and new restrictions like tariffs and trade barriers inhibited American commerce in much the same way the British had (Berkin 15).

From a modern perspective, the vital role the Constitution was to play in alleviating these problems seems almost second-nature, but for those summoned to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and those they represented, it would have been inconceivable. The general suspicion of and disdain for government power and oppression which had been unifying themes during the war made even the possibility of revising the Articles seem radical. The same deeply-rooted fears of large government wresting control from the people were shared even by those in favor of more drastic responses to America’s political problems, but many nationalists like Madison and Hamilton, who came to play a crucial part in the Constitution’s drafting, still recognized the absolute necessity of a central government with independent sources of income and power to maintain law, order, and defense from foreign infringements (Berkin 39-45). In order to accomplish this, sacrifices had to be made; there was no way to establish a central government strong enough to hold the nation together and pull it out of depression without usurping autonomy from the states, and smaller states like Delaware and Rhode Island feared their voices in any form of central government would be overshadowed by the larger, wealthier states (Berkin 45).

Only after Madison’s famed Virginia Plan was presented and began to set the agenda for the convention was significant headway made toward amicable compromise among its attendees(68-73). Fearful as they were of centralized government, the prominent delegates at the convention were significantly less-opposed to entertaining nationalist arguments for drastic change than many others in the new republic who refused to attend – perhaps the most decisive factor in allowing any compromise to be reached at all (Berkin 71). Yet the Great Compromise, as it came to be known, was as much a product of the ardent dissent and debate – and the fears that fueled them – in the assembly’s daily proceedings as it was the desire for change. As the passionate oration of those aware of the need for drastic reforms allowed progress to be made, the fears and reservations of others urged them to proceed with caution and restraint, and both characteristics came to define the drafting of our nation’s Constitution. Reforms including the creation of a government with multiple branches for “checks-and-balances” on power, a bicameral legislature weighted to represent states more equally than the simpler “one-to-one” system, a judicial branch to maintain law, and the much-debated and carefully limited office of executive, all spoke to the influence not only of radical reformists, but of those most fearful of central government in eventually framing the US Constitution.

Fears of government are further made apparent through the rejection of certain proposals such as Madison’s desire for congressional veto of state legislations, and less tolerable compromises on the continuation of slavery to support southern economies (113-115). In the end, however, the bitterly divided political atmosphere of the early post-revolutionary United States made any significant compromise on these issues not only incredibly surprising, but a necessary step in the right direction. Political divisions and enmities would certainly continue, and the path ahead for Americans was anything but smooth, but for the first time an effective government had been envisioned for the United States which would hold our nation together and prove its temper through even the most arduous tests of time.

Works Cited

Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002.