A Skeptics Guide to American History
Episode 3 The Constitution Did Not Create a Democracy
Dr Mark A Stoler
I find it extremely ironic how little I know about early US history despite studying it every year in social studies between age 10 and 16. In fact, I was surprised how much new information I gleaned from this presentation.
On the downside, Stoler isn’t nearly as skeptical as I had hoped. While he reminds us that the most democratically minded of the founding fathers (Patrick Henry, Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were excluded from the secret 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he fails to mention that the men who wrote the Constitution were merchants, bankers, traders and land speculators with the primary goal of protecting their business interests.
Between 1776 and 1781, the Second Continental Congress governed the newly independent US. From 1781-89, the country was governed by the Congress of the Confederation, whose founding document was the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were first were presented to the states in 1777. However owing to early colonists’ extreme distrust of central government, they weren’t fully ratified (by the required nine states) until 1781.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the new government successfully negotiated the Treaty of Paris (ending the War of Independence) in 1783 and passed the Northwest Ordinance. The latter provided for all federal land west of the Appalachians, east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River to be surveyed and sold for $1 per acre and required the new territories to guarantee trial by jury, freedom of religion and to prohibit slavery.
Stoler claims the main weakness of the Articles was their failure to give the Congress of the Confederation the authority to issue money, tax or establish a standing army.* In arguing the importance of a standing army, he seems to side with the imperialist ambitions of wealthy merchants and land speculators eager to seize western lands occupied by Native Americans.
He acknowledges that Shay’s Rebellion was the likely the main impetus behind the Constitutional Convention. However he also implies the farmers (the vast majority of the population) who participated in the rebellion as “anarchists” who “threatened tyranny from below.” In fact, he makes no mention whatsoever of the corrupt banking practices that led to Shay’s Rebellion,**
*In my view these are strengths, rather than weaknesses. Thomas Jefferson (deliberately excluded from the Constitutional Convention) strongly opposed the creation of a standing army during peacetime. See http://thomasjeffersonleadership.com/blog/thomas-jefferson-on-the-danger-of-a-standing-army/
**When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the farmers who served in the Continental Army returned home to find their discharge pay (in British pounds) was worthless. All 13 states were on the verge of economic collapse, due to heavy war debts they owed European banks. 80% of the prison population in Western Massachusetts (where Daniel Shay had his farm) were there for non-payment of debts. Determined to keep their economies from collapsing, many states issued paper money to allow trade to continue. The colony’s bankers, fearing the inflation risk of paper money, demanded, above all, that the new constitution immediately strip states of the power of money creation. Ironically, although the US Constitution gives Congress the sole power to create money, Congress quickly handed this power over to private banks – where it remains to the present day.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.