It is a strange fact of modern American culture that when looking at famous people in the political realm of American history, far more often than not the more statist a historical figure is, the more likely he will be to receive the most attention and celebrity. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and, of course, Abraham Lincoln, for instance- all of whom are among the biggest centralizers to have held office -are heralded as our greatest Presidents, while those who abided as strictly as possible by the duties of their office go unmentioned. This seems especially true of those who opposed the US Constitution. One might even apply the term “hidden” to many of these Founding Fathers.
With regards to constitutional history the narrative goes something like this: “The Founders of the United States realized that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and a stronger central government was needed to manage the affairs of ‘the people.’ So, one beautiful day in Philadelphia, they gathered and went about the work of improving the ‘nation’s’ governing system. These ‘founding brothers’ were all of like mind and in short order reached an agreement which resulted in our constitution – the Holy Grail of human governance – and established the greatest ‘nation’ in the history of mankind.”
While this would make a nice story for a pre-elementary school level coloring book, in terms of history it hovers somewhere between wildly inaccurate and complete nonsense.
Acceptance of the Constitution varied from State to State. In a few cases, the final vote was unanimous, and in others such as New York where it passed by a margin of three votes, it barely achieved ratification.
The final outcome of the South Carolina Convention (which approved by a vote of 149-73) is a distraction from the fact that this was also one of the more heated legislative sessions in the union, eclipsed perhaps only by Virginia where the great orator and philosopher Patrick Henry led the opposition.
In the case of South Carolina, Rawlins Lowndes, a Founder virtually unknown to Americans today, was among the fiercest opponents of ratification in the Union.
Lowndes, a lawyer by practice, had served in several offices in the State of South Carolina during the colonial era, including Provost Marshal, as well as in the General Assembly and, during the American War for Independence, he served as “President” of that State – a position that was changed to “Governor” while he held office. He would likewise sire two sons, William and Thomas, who would follow in their father’s footsteps and enter the arena of politics.
Rawlins Lowndes would mount a strenuous opposition to the Constitution’s ratification, but as with other opponents he faced a daunting challenge. As M.E. Bradford, in his wonderful book Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, points out: “It could be argued that South Carolina ratified the Constitution on May 12, 1780, the day Sir Henry Clinton marched into Charleston and occupied the city.”
In other words, says Bradford, “South Carolina was resolved after this bitter experience to accept as fact that an absolute independence of the several States was an invitation to foreign invasion and had remembered the great lessons of military federalism even when at peace.” Carolinians above and beyond all else at this key point in their history were of the mind that they needed the mutual protection of the other States, and that some form of central authority was needed to organize this common defense.
There is no indication that Rawlins Lowndes objected to this point, after all a “union” already existed under the Articles of Confederation. But it was the specific design of parts of the constitution that drew his ire and produced one of the more hotly debated legislative conventions in the ratification process of the constitution. The clarification should be made that the actual ratifying convention for South Carolina was not to take place until May of that year. This legislative session, held in January was, as Charles Cotesworth Pinckney would point out in his opening remarks, for the purpose of appointing the actual ratifying body.
However, Pinckney suggested that “the legislatures must be the instrument of submitting the plan (the constitution) to the opinion of the people” and therefore “it became a duty in their delegates to state with conciseness the motives which induced it.”
In the months between the Philadelphia convention and its ratification, proponents of the constitution rattled on in an effort to sell the constitution to the States. One of the principal selling points was that it narrowly defined and specifically enumerated the powers of the government that it was to create. The new government would not, in theory, be able to infringe on the jurisdiction of the several States because, as Alexander Hamilton would say in the New York convention, it was contained to a specific “sphere” of power and was only “supreme” within that sphere. James Wilson of Pennsylvania and James Madison of Virginia both voiced similar opinions in relating why a Bill of Rights would be redundant and unnecessary – where no power was delegated, no authority existed. The general government was to be a creation of the States and was to act as an agent on their behalf, but only with regards to specific delegated powers. Madison, writing in The Federalist would say of the new government, that its powers were “few and defined”, while the powers of the States were “numerous and indefinite”.
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, speaking in favor of the constitution in the South Carolina Legislative Session, declared that it was “the fairest experiment that had been ever made in favor of human nature” and expressed “a thorough conviction that the firm establishment of the present system is better calculated to answer the great ends of public happiness than any that has yet been devised.”
Rawlins Lowndes took the floor and, reading from the second clause of Article VI (“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby – anything in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding”), he asked:
“Now, in the history of the known world, was there an instance of the rulers of a republic being allowed to go so far? Even the most arbitrary kings possessed nothing like it.”
Aware that proponents held that the constitution and only the laws “made in pursuance thereof” were “supreme” (which necessarily omits laws not made “in pursuance thereof”), he related that “The tyrannical Henry VIII had power given him by Parliament to issue proclamations that should have the same force as laws of the land; but this unconstitutional privilege had been justly reprobated and exploded.”
He was stating the unquestionable truth that, throughout history, governments are rarely confined to original or stated intent, and that power once given has the tendency to grow. He likewise “commented on the extensive powers given to the President, who was not, he believed, likely ever to be chosen from South Carolina or Georgia.”
And herein lies the crux of his overall position. There were distinct differences in the cultures of the Southern States with those of the other regions. New England tended towards an “ordered society” with government in direct control of the lives, rights and privileges of the individual. Families, in that society, were a part of the “collective” and were to function according to the “communal good”, rather than the community existing at the leisure of the family or individual. A President from that region with “sweeping powers”, or a Congress which was dominated by “Eastern” (Meaning Atlantic and New England) men, would be necessarily inclined to impose such a system on the other States, and taken out of context with the clear intent of Article VI, such edicts may be considered “supreme”. Like others, Lowndes vehemently objected to such “extensive powers.”
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney rose to counter Lowndes and stated that “the comparison made between kings and our President was not a proper one.” He continued that “Kings are, in general, hereditary, in whose appointment the people have no voice; whereas, in the election of our President, the people have a voice, and the state of South Carolina hath a thirteenth share in his appointment.” “In the election of senators,” he added “South Carolina has an equal vote with any other state (This was of course prior to the progressive era’s 17th Amendment); so has Georgia; and if we have a man as fit for the office of President in this state as in others, he did not think that being a southern man could be an objection.”
With all due regard to General Pinckney, he could not foresee the designs of what Edmund Ruffin, at the close of the War to Prevent Southern Independence, would refer to as “that vile Yankee race.”
After several statements by Pierce Butler, John Rutledge and others who were refuting Lowndes’ position on the Supremacy Clause, and the treaty-making powers of the President and Senate, Lowndes “desired gentlemen to consider that his antagonists were mostly gentlemen of the law, who were capable of giving ingenious explanations to such points as they wished to have adopted.”
As he continued he “explained his opinion relative to treaties to be, that no treaty concluded contrary to the express laws of the land could be valid.” “The king of England” he asserted “when he concluded one, did not think himself warranted to go further than to promise that he would endeavor to induce his Parliament to sanction it.” But, he pointed out that “the security of a republic is jealousy; for its ruin may be expected from unsuspecting security. Let us not, therefore, receive this proffered system with implicit confidence, as carrying with it the stamp of superior perfection; rather let us compare what we already possess with what we are offered for it.”
“We are now under the government of a most excellent constitution,” Lowndes said of the Articles of Confederation, “one that had stood the test of time, and carried us through difficulties generally supposed to be insurmountable; one that had raised us high in the eyes of all nations, and given to us the enviable blessings of liberty and independence; a constitution sent like a blessing from Heaven; yet we are impatient to change it for another, that vested power in a few men to pull down that fabric, which we had raised at the expense of our blood.”
Keying in on the submission by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney that the new government would be an “experiment”, Lowndes stated, “It has been said that this new government was to be considered as an experiment…………An experiment! What, risk the loss of political existence on experiment! No, sir” Lowndes thundered “if we are to make experiments, rather let them be such as may do good, but which cannot possibly do any injury to us or our posterity.”
The climatic point of his oration against the new Constitution followed when he asserted that “when this new Constitution should be adopted, the sun, of the Southern States would set, never to rise again.”
To back up a point that must have seemed overly dramatic to his detractors, he “observed that six of the Eastern States formed a majority in the House of Representatives. In the enumeration he passed Rhode Island (which had sent no delegates to Philadelphia), and included Pennsylvania.” “Now” he asked “was it consonant with reason, with wisdom, with policy, to suppose, in a legislature where a majority of persons whose interests were greatly different from ours, that we had the smallest chance of receiving adequate advantages?”
Lowndes stated his belief that “the gentlemen that went from this state, to represent us in Convention, possessed as much integrity, and stood as high in point of character, as any gentlemen that could have been selected; and he also believed that they had done everything in their power to procure for us a proportionate share in this new government; but the very little they had gained proved what we may expect in future – that the interest of the Northern States would so predominate as to divest us of any pretensions to the title of a republic.”
It was at this point that he brought up, as an example of both the distinctions and the governmental tendencies of the two regions, the issue of slavery. “In the first place,” Lowndes said, “what cause was there for jealousy of our importing negroes? Why confine us to twenty years, or rather why limit us at all?” For his part, “he thought this trade could be justified on the principles of religion, humanity, and justice; for certainly to translate a set of human beings from a bad country to a better, was fulfilling every part of these principles.”
He was asserting a position that was commonly held both in the North and South at the time that Africans were elevated in quality of life by being transplanted from a pagan culture to an enlightened one. Contrarily, future abolitionists would desire to round up slaves and freedmen alike and “colonize” them in other parts of the world. Anywhere but in the United States.
Speaking of New Englanders, he continued:
“But they don’t like our slaves, because they have none themselves, and therefore want to exclude us from this great advantage. Why should the Southern States allow of this, without the consent of nine states?”
“Without the consent of nine States” was meant by Lowndes to state that a “unanimous” consent should be necessary, necessitating that the Southern States themselves, rather than a majority of non-slaveholding States, would consent as well to this change in the institutions peculiar to their regions. To paraphrase his question, he was asking, “Why should the North get the privilege of deciding this issue for us, based solely on the fact that they would outnumber the Southern States?”
South Carolina had, on her own, suspended the importation of slaves in 1785, a move which Lowndes had “greatly approved” of, and this suspension remained in effect at the time of ratification, but “there was no reason offered why the Southern States might not find it necessary to alter their conduct, and open their ports.” In other words, Lowndes wanted the decisions concerning slavery in South Carolina to be made by South Carolinians, rather than by a consolidated mass made up of a majority of representatives from other States congregating in Philadelphia.
His suggestion that “they don’t like our slaves, because they have none themselves” is not mere ad hominem. He was pointing to the Yankee tendency to crusade against anything outside of their chosen societal, meaning “communal”, arrangement. With New England’s cultural predisposition towards “ordering” local community structure through various means, how could they be trusted to wield power in adherence to a Constitution which seemingly afforded what Lowndes considered powers that could easily become “reprobated and exploded”?
“Negroes” Lowndes stated “were our wealth, our only natural resource; yet behold how our kind friends in the north were determined soon to tie up our hands, and drain us of what we had! The Eastern (Northeastern) States drew their means of subsistence, in a great measure, from their shipping; and, on that head, they had been particularly careful not to allow of any burdens: they were not to pay tonnage or duties; no, not even the form of clearing out: all ports were free and open to them! Why, then, call this a reciprocal bargain, which took all from one party, to bestow it on the other!”
Major Pierce Butler “countered that they were to pay a 5% impost.”
This Lowndes stated “must fall upon the consumer. They are to be the carriers; and, we being the consumers, therefore all expenses would fall upon us.”
In other words, Lowndes was suspicious of the North in general, and with regards to the prohibition of the slave trade, he saw it as a potential for fiscal exploitation of the South in particular.
It should be pointed out as well that the New-England States, from whence most of the “crusaders for equality” later known as radical abolitionists commenced, had themselves only abolished slavery within a decade or two of the Constitution’s adoption. In Massachusetts, for example, slavery was abolished by judicial fiat in 1783 as a result of what would come to be known as the “Quock Walker Case.” It was not by referendum, or ratification of a new State Constitution that led to abolition in that State, but by “re-interpretation” of an existing Constitution. In other words, it did not come about as an act of “the people” of Massachusetts, but by the arbitrary will of a judicial body. Moreover, abolitionists were not in general stirred to action by any quest for racial equality at all, but merely by a pseudo-religious zeal to shape society into a form that they desired. How then could they be trusted to have no qualms about shaping other societies as well as their own to achieve their “shining city on a hill?” John Brown and his supporters would come along later to exemplify this fact. And still later, abolitionists would seek to rewrite “history” in an attempt to detach New England from any connection to slavery at all or, failing to do so, would paint the institution in their region as, according to Catharine Sedgewick for example, being applied “with almost parental kindness.” Of course, the “wretched” Southerners were afforded no such benefit of doubt in their own approach to slavery.
Like Patrick Henry protesting in the Virginia Convention the usage of the term “We the People,” Lowndes, who referred sarcastically to New Englanders as “our kind friends to the North,” knew that a government “supreme” in all things, and dominated by people of such proclivities, would observe no boundaries in its efforts to mold all of the formerly “free and independent States” into one consolidated mass- by governmental force, if necessary – and use the Northern volume of sectional representation as a means of subjugating the South through congressional actions. It was thus stated by Lowndes that:
“A great number of gentlemen were captivated with this new Constitution, because those who were in debt would be compelled to pay; others pleased themselves with the reflection that no more confiscation laws would be passed; but those were small advantages, in proportion to the evils that might be apprehended from the laws that might be passed by Congress, whenever there was a majority of representatives from the Eastern States, who were governed by prejudices and ideas extremely different from ours.”
Lowndes was unconvinced that the new constitution was supported by the people and “was afraid” with regard to the legislators “in the present instance, that so much partiality prevailed for this new Constitution, that opposition from him would be fruitless: however, he felt so much the importance of the subject, that he hoped the house would indulge him in a few words as to take a view, comparatively, of the old constitution and the new one, in point of modesty.” “Congress” said Lowndes “laboring under many difficulties, asked to regulate commerce for twenty-one years, when the power reverted into the hands of those who originally gave it; but this infallible new Constitution eased us of any more trouble, for it was to regulate commerce ad infinitum; and thus called upon us to pledge ourselves and posterity, forever, in support of their measures, so when our to the confined local legislature had dwindled down powers of a corporation, we should be liable to taxes and excise; not, perhaps, payable in paper, but in specie.”
He continued stating in obvious contemptuousness that, “However, thy need not be uneasy, since everything would be managed in future by great men; and great men, everybody knew, were incapable of acting under mistake or prejudice: they were infallible; so that if, at any future period, we should smart under laws which bore hard upon us, and think proper to remonstrate, the answer would probably be, ‘Go: you are totally incapable of managing for yourselves. Go: mind your private affairs; trouble not yourselves with public concerns — ‘Mind your business.'”
Stemming from the “ordered society” inherent in New England Puritanism, it had become engrained within the Northeast’s societal and neo-mercantilist economic nature to use the coercive force of government in such a manner and often in the most hypocritical ways. His former reference to the slave trade, as well as his allusion to the potentiality for burdensome and impartial taxation, were merely two among many examples that would have been applicable with a Northern dominated government wielding “supreme” powers. If evidence is needed to solidify the point of Yankee sanctimony, look no further than that the same New Englanders in general who themselves mulled the idea of secession on multiple occasions between 1788 and 1860, later denied that any right to peaceful departure existed and sought to crush by violent force and invasion such an attempt by the Southern States. The hypocrisy should be self-evident, and it must be stated that if there is a single cause of the war of 1861-1865, ratification of the Constitution could with reason be pointed to as that cause. Lowndes was near prophetic in his assertions of what a government dominated by such a mindset would ultimately produce.
As M.E. Bradford points out in his aforementioned tome, the various States and regions had different interpretations of “union” from the outset, as well as differing reasons for ratification. Southern proponents of the Constitution saw it as an instrument encompassing powers mainly “to be exercised in times of war” and common defense, or for such “external” purposes. New England recognized no such limitations. “It is an irony,” wrote Bradford, “that the Constitution (James) Madison did so much to create has, through an alchemy of our national history, become more like the one approved in Massachusetts than the one he hoped to establish.”
Rawlins Lowndes, among others, saw the inevitably negative and, as it turned out, violent and bloody consequences of trying to mesh incompatible things. In opposing ratification he fought the good fight in his attempt to prevent the unavoidable destruction that, as he saw it, ratification would almost certainly rain down upon the sovereignty of his State as well as the traditional Southern mode of self-government. Time has proven him correct.