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Seventeen
July, 1946, p55 ff

The Way for a Nation

By Howard Fast

What is our Bill of Rights? A few afterthoughts tacked onto the Constitution? No, it is a charter of freedom demanded by the people, a blueprint to show all people how to protect liberty

 

In a letter to a friend of his, a veteran soldier of our Revolution said about the new Constitution:

"It tells me a nation of things about Government, but no place inside of it is there a good reason why I fought in a war and took me a wound in the arm. The Arm is no good for ploughing or otherwise, but I sit with a fine document that fine Men have drafted."
That, multiplied several hundred thousand times, expressed in one way or another the reaction of the average American of 1787 to the new Constitution which had just been presented. He had come out of a long and bloody war, fought by a loose federation of colonial states for some sound economic reasons and some very lofty ideals. In some cases he had stood by the struggle for all the eight seemingly endless years the war had lasted; in other cases, he had fought between planting and harvest, picked up a gun this season and dropped it the next. Or again, he had enlisted for a term of a year, dropped out and then re-enlisted. Or he might have been a boy at the beginning, come to maturity in the course of the war, and gone into it with the feeling that revolution was a part of his developing life.

Although the Colonial government could never put more than thirty thousand men in the field at one time, when we lump together all of the partisan bands, all the minute-men, all the short-term enlistments, we conclude that at least a hundred and fifty thousand men bore arms at one point or another in the course of our Revolution. That's quite a piece out of a population numbering only a little more than three million... and a great many of those men entered the postwar years disillusioned and poverty-stricken. After serving for years without pay, they were now paid off in currency that was almost worthless. No provision was made for the sick, the wounded, the disabled. War profiteers accumulated fortunes; smooth operators, who rode on the American bandwagon for what they could squeeze from it, acquired vast holdings of former British property or property that had belonged to Tories. Men of influence extracted large sums in the shape of gifts from the Continental Congress.

But for the average soldier, there was nothing except the quickly-mouthed thanks of the Republic he had helped to create, and after that quicker forgetfulness. The fine words of the Revolution remained words; many of the farmer-soldiers came to find that their farms were gone; many of the artisans came back to find that their jobs were gone. Bands of hungry, hopeless soldiers roamed the rutted dirt roads of the time, and newspapers printed editorials about the lazy veterans who had forgotten how to work.

The veterans and the common people who gathered around them had certain specific demands. They wanted their wounded comrades taken care of; they wanted land; they wanted their back pay in currency which would buy something. They wanted some of the ideals they had fought for to come true; they revolted at being treated like vagabonds, being thrown into jail, being herded from town to town. Arid as their voices became louder and louder, the men in Philadelphia, which was the capital then, began to take notice. Then, when some hundreds of them banded together under a man called Shays, to win their rights by force of arms, the men who were running the federation began to do more than merely take notice. The popular demands of the people had by now become a force to be reckoned with; also, people began to understand that the loose federation of states which had fought and won the war were in no sense a country. They were bound together by a set of laws and regulations called the Articles of Confederation; and these articles satisfied neither the rich nor the poor... they could not work to the full benefit of either group.

Two meetings were called to amend these articles; and the second of these meetings, realizing that the articles could not be amended, turned to the framing of a new and workable federal constitution. With George Washington presiding as chairman, this group met, day after day, in secret session. Finally, on the tenth of September, in 1787, the various proposals and amendments adopted by the convention were referred to a committee of five, to be formulated and drawn up in the shape of a constitution. A week later the job was done, and there came into existence what was to be known as the Constitution of the United States of America.

And the people didn't like it. As the one soldier I quoted said... and he was only one of many thousands... there was nothing in it to tell a man why he had fought a war, and what is more to the point, nothing to assure him that he would not have to fight several more wars to win what he considered his personal freedom.

In no uncertain terms the people expressed their dislike and resentment for this Constitution. Here are a few incidents, for example: in Providence, Rhode Island, when news got around that the State would ratify the Constitution on July Fourth, a thousand armed men came in from the countryside, forbidding at gun's point any celebration of what they considered the death-knell for liberty; in Albany, New York, the Constitution was burned publicly, and virtual civil war broke out between the pro and anti factions; in Boston, a group of sullen, angry veterans held a mass meeting; in New York city, patriots paraded the streets, carrying a coffin in which liberty was embalmed; in Charleston, an armed group stalked through the city, chanting, "Hamilton and Morris win the war... we lose!"

And that was only part of it; all over the country, in every city, every town, the people felt that this new Constitution was a bitter defeat for the forces of freedom. Not quite the picture we got in school... but there was a good reason for this; let's look at the Constitution as it stood then:

There were seven articles. The first dealt with Congress, outlined it and defined it; the second dealt with the President, defining his position and powers; the third took up the question of judicial power; the fourth outlined the relationship and government of the various States; the fifth described how the Constitution might be amended; the sixth spoke of debts, treaties, laws of the land; and the final article concerned itself with ratification.

All in all, a very good outline for government; specific, detailed but not too much so, and filled with a fine system of checks and balances. However, one thing was conspicuous by its absence... the question of the people who made up the nation, who had created the nation, who had fought for their freedom for eight long years, Somehow or other the people were not there; the rights of the people were quietly omitted; the famous rights of man, from which the militant slogans of the Revolution had derived, were seemingly forgotten.

It was a good Constitution; it was a nice Constitution: it was even a workable Constitution; the only thing it did not consider was the question of personal freedom.

And all over the land, in anger, in defiance, in disgust, in contempt, too, the voice of the people was raised. In mass meetings, in town halls, on the streets, in the taverns, in the shops, on the farms, over dinner tables, in workrooms, everywhere... the bitter voice of the people:

What about my religion? Where does it say I'll be free to worship God as I please?

What. about my gun? This gun won my freedom. Where does it say that no man can take my musket from me? Am I to bow down to an army, a military dictatorship?

What about my home, my house? The British turned my home into their barracks and pigpen. Where does it say my home is mine? Where does it say they can't enter my home, take it. away from me?

Where are my rights in front of a court? Where does it say they can't haul me into court, frame a case and hang me for it? Where does it say that what's mine is mine?

Where is the right to trial by jury? Where is my right to defend myself?

They jailed my friend for opening his mouth and put bail at ten thousand dollars. Where does it say they can't do that to me?

Where is my freedom of speech? I fought this war to talk my mind... to say what I please. That's democracy. Where does it guarantee my freedom of speech?

What about freedom of the press? I thought we fought for that, too. Where does this Constitution talk about freedom of the press?

And meetings? The only way the common man wins anything is to get together and talk loud and strong about it. Where is my right to hold public meetings? Where is my right to petition the Government?

To sum up: this Constitution says a good deal about government; it says nothing about the people.

Today, we can thank God that the people were angry then, in 1787, that they raised their voices and that they made their voices heard. For their voices were loud and strong, and the men in Philadelphia listened. The people were angry; their most basic rights had been attacked. They let it be known that they would have those rights... peacefully or by force of arms. As a Boston pastor of the Congregational Church, Livegood Phelps, said at the time:

"We fought the British tyrant once. If we have to fight the American tyrant, then I say, God willing, we will triumph again."

They didn't have to fight. For the first time, American public opinion made itself heard... and the Bill of Rights was the answer, the first ten amendments to the Constitution... the rights of Americans to freedom.

They were very wise, these strong ancestors of ours; not the handful who sat in constitutional convention, but the three million and more who built the houses, dug the ore from the earth and smelted it, hewed the timber, plowed the fields and planted them. They were very wise and very far-sighted... and because of their insistent regard for personal liberty, we today can stand on our constitutional rights as free men.

Read over these ten amendments; read them carefully. They were important a century and a half ago; somehow they seem to be far more important today. Recently... very recently... some thirty million human beings died in a struggle to preserve those rights. That's a price to pay, and people who pay such a price should know the value of what they've bought.


Howard Fast

Howard Fast (The Way for a Nation, p. 55) at thirty-two is rated one of America's top historical novelists. (Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Road are his two best-known books.) But his was no overnight success. He started out to be a painter, wrote short stories as a hobby. When he was eighteen he sold several stories, decided it was more profitable to be a writer than a painter. The depression made him wonder if you could write and eat at the same time. Now he's sure you can.


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