One of the most enduring myths of American history centers on the “compact theory” of the Constitution. According to the standard interpretation, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans invented the “theory” to challenge Federalist control of the general government in the 1790s.
This implies that Jefferson and the other Republicans acted in bad faith by playing fast and loose with the history of the Constitution in a partisan hatchet job design to gain power. Simply put, they lied.
History does not support this position.
Jefferson certainly enjoyed political roughhousing, and he could be petty, but he was always a committed federalist—not Federalist—who understood the original intent of the Constitution better than most.
This led him to view the Union as it was established in 1776, a general government for commerce and defense where all other issues were left to the States. Both the framers of the Constitution and the men who ratified it sold the document on this very promise. The States would not be abolished and would have virtually the same powers they enjoyed under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution, then, was a compact “between the States so ratifying the same” as Article VII clearly stated. This was a fact, not a theory.
The founding generation believed that real federalism and the compact fact of the Constitution would minimize conflict between discordant sections.
The Union may have have worked well if the general government adhered to the terms of the agreement, but by the 1790s, it was clear that the Federalists, particularly those in New England, desired a “national” government in order to control the political spoils. There was just one problem. The Constitution did not create a “national” government. That prospect was explicitly rejected at both the Philadelphia Convention and in the State ratifying conventions. Why? Because no one thought it would be beneficial for one section to control the fortunes of another. Why should Massachusetts be governed by Virginia and vice versa?
Jefferson knew it as did John Taylor of Caroline, the leading political thinker of his day. Neither man considered Federalist rule to be advantageous for the Union or the South, particularly Virginia, Jefferson’s “country.”
In June 1798, Taylor wrote a friend that he believed the Union was on the verge of dissolution, a “scission” as Taylor called it. Jefferson was shown the letter and he quickly scribbled a reply. This is perhaps one of his most important letters for it was written just five months before he penned the Kentucky Resolutions in reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Jefferson agreed that Virginia was under the yoke of Massachusetts, and
that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings as well as exhausting our strength and substance. their natural friends, the three other Eastern states, join them from a sort of family pride, and they have the art to divide certain other parts of the Union, so as to make use of them to govern the whole.
This led in Jefferson’s mind to an unnatural political problem in America, for he thought that,
the body of our countrymen is substantially republican through every part of the union. it was the irresistable influence & popularity of Genl. Washington played off by the cunning of Hamilton which turned the government over to antirepublican hands, or turned the republican members chosen by the people into anti-republicans. he delivered it over to his successor in this state, and very untoward events since, improved with great artifice, have produced on the public mind the impression we see.
Jefferson claimed this would soon be rectified by the voting public. They would only suffer so long under the heel of these petty tyrants, and he insisted that a “scission” of the Union would do little to arrest the problems of political division, what Jefferson considered to be a natural occurrence in a “deliberating” society. If New England were removed from the Union, Jefferson argued that a division between Virginia and Pennsylvania would soon rise and that would be met by another round of division until the entire Union would be torn asunder for even the Southern States would feel the sting of partisanship and division. He therefore concluded that:
I had rather keep our New-England associates for that purpose, than to see our bickerings transferred to others. they are circumscribed within such narrow limits, & their population so full, that their numbers will ever be the minority, and they are marked, like the Jews, with such a peculiarity of character, as to constitute from that circumstance the natural division of our parties. a little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people recovering their true sight, restore their government to it’s true principles.
Taylor did not share Jefferson’s rosy prognostication of a future in which New England would be checked by simply voting better. His letter in response serves as a powerful rebuttal to the idea that the “compact theory” arose as a product pure political partisanship. To Taylor, the real divisions between New England and the rest of the United States gave him pause as to the future prospects, and more importantly the benefits, of the Union.
Taylor considered the partisanship of New England to be a byproduct of both geography and “interest,” and unlike Jefferson he did not think that party divisions were natural occurrences. He cited Connecticut as an example of a fairly unanimous electorate and thought that the rigid—almost religious—belief in “checks and balances” failed to fully arrest the sword of despotism in the United States. In other words, the Constitution was doomed from the beginning.
Taylor told Jefferson “that the perfection, and not the scission of the union, was the object of the letter you refer to….” This spirit of Union mirrored what John C. Calhoun said about secession and Union. Calhoun always insisted he favored the Union, but only if it could maintain liberty. Taylor declared the same sentiment, for in his mind, liberty had to be the direct end of government and if the Union failed to protect liberty, then it was a worthless bond of oppression.
The question became how to fix it. He proposed four changes aimed at reducing the influence of “artful” corruption in American politics: expanded suffrage, annual elections, annual tax laws—meaning that all taxes had to be passed annually—and an improved mode of checking bad legislation. His proposals sounded much like New England criticisms of the Constitution in 1788 (Massachusetts bristled at a lack of annual elections) or Virginia’s headlong rush to universal suffrage in the 1820s, but regardless, Taylor was attempting to right what he considered to be structural deficiencies in the document.
Most important, however, was his belief that the only entities powerful enough to check the center were the States. In Taylor’s view, the “right” of the States to “expound the constitution” made them the natural repositories of liberty. But if that didn’t work, Taylor suggested, “the people in state conventions, are incontrovertibly the contracting parties, and possessing the impinging rights, may proceed by orderly steps to attain the object [emphasis added].” That sounds like the “compact fact” of the Constitution.
Of course, the retarding agent in all of this was unchecked taxation from the center, a problem that Taylor considered to be the heart of the nationalist takeover of the general government:
Taxes are the subsistence of party. As the miasma of marshes contaminate the human body, those of taxes corrupt and putrify the body politic. Taxation transfers wealth from a mass to a selection. It destroys the political Equality, which alone can save liberty; and yet no constitution, whilst devising checks upon power, has devised checks sufficiently strong upon the means which create it. Government, endowed with a right to transfer, bestow, and monopolise wealth in perpetuity is in fact, unlimited. It soon becomes a feudal lord over a nation in villenage.
Taylor’s conclusion should give anyone pause. While written int 1798, it makes the modern effort to suppress civil liberties that much more nefarious, for Taylor predicted our current state of affairs:
But since government is getting [sic] into the habit of peeping into private letters, and is manufacturing a law, which may even make it criminal to pray to God for better times, I shall be careful not to repeat so dangerous a liberty.—I hope it may not be criminal to add a supplication [sic] for an individual—not—for I will be cautious—as a republican, but as a man.
All told, Jefferson’s advice to vote better has been steamrolled by Taylor’s more reasoned arguments in favor of real federalism and liberty. This makes the agrarian Taylor, the true embodiment of “Jeffersonian” republicans, the real prophet without honor. If only we had listened.