In the Revolutionary War, Americans revolted against the British government to be rid of a government that acted with impunity according to its own interests and that did not represent them or their interests in any way. British Parliament claimed that it did indeed represent the interests of all British subjects, not only those who elected MPs. Many Americans knew that this was ridiculous (theoretically and practically), fought the British army until it gave up, and sought to establish a new government that did represent their wishes but would mostly leave them alone to pursue freedom of enterprise and choice. After a few years of a government that was unable to do anything at all, a reform Convention was usurped by a group of people who went on to create a Constitution that does not equally represent citizens, does not ensure equality, justice, or freedom of enterprise and choice, and does infringe upon the rights of its own citizens and of aliens with impunity. These people were called our Founding Fathers.
The Founding Fathers are honored for their judicious foresight and wisdom, but despite all that the Constitution was forged in an oven of political and economic self-interest, state pride, obstinacy, shortsightedness, and complacency. The Three-Fifths Compromise embodied this situation, giving delegates in slave states a political advantage (representation) and an economic advantage (slavery) from this peculiar institution. “This was simply diabolical,” writes Robert Dahl, “because to the insult of defining a person held in bondage as three-fifths of a human being it added the injury of using that definition to augment the political power of that person’s oppressors.” In light of the Articles of Convention, the Constitution, and the moral fabric of their age, the Three-Fifths Compromise was a necessary step to forging a strong national government. If the founders had written their egalitarian principles into the Constitution, then the injustice of the Three-Fifths Compromise might not have been forced into the fabric of our nation.
Alexander Hamilton argued that “As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?” If small-state delegates had accepted this logic instead of obstinately standing for states’ rights and threatening secession if they did not get their way, then voters from larger states would not be underrepresented and the course of our nation’s history would be very different. John Adams would have had a second term; slavery might have disappeared sooner, or less violently; different industries would have been favored; and we would have been involved sooner and more in the World Wars and in the League of Nations.
What could they have done differently? I would advocate a reallocation of power between the three branches of government. Congress should be unicameral and based on population. The Judicial Branch should ensure equal representation in government and equal treatment under the law, and would have the power to initiate an impeachment process which must be fulfilled by Congress. Members of the Supreme Court would be elected for life, not appointed. The executive would not have veto power and should be solely concerned with ensuring the enforcement of laws and with international affairs and the military. This would leave most of the power in Congress, which would be more accountable to and more representative of the population.
A more democratic allocation of power in government would have lessened if not averted the greatest tragedy of our nation: enslavement and disenfranchisement of millions. Even when the “catastrophic failure of the Constitution itself” was evident in the Civil War, according to Hendrik Hertzberg, the ‘victors’ did not take the initiative to “alter the political institutions that in 1860 had held four million people – one American in eight – in bondage and that, for the next century and, arguably, more, denied millions of their ‘free’ descendants both equal protection and franchise.” The Founders created this situation; the victors in the war that decided the fate of our nation did nothing to change it.