- “The Constitution left the states with no power to regulate commerce.”
- “The federal government has no power to regulate immigration.”
- “The Constitution forbids the federal government from issuing paper money.”
- “The Founders drew a sharp distinction between a republic and a democracy, and they created only a republic, not a democracy.”
- “A convention for proposing amendments is a constitutional convention that cannot be limited by law.”
Formative Influences on the FoundersNearly all the leading American Founders were born and raised in the British Empire. The empire was a global entity that included England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, large parts of India and North America, and numerous other possessions.
The Founders’ education was based on a curriculum that emphasized, besides science and mathematics, Greek and Latin classics, subsequent European and American history, and British and European literature.
Most of the Founders were, or had been, practicing lawyers in the Anglo-American legal system. When James Wilson (a native of Scotland) or Alexander Hamilton (born on the British Caribbean island of Nevis) argued a case or drafted a document, they relied on English laws and court decisions. Even leading non-lawyers such as James Madison and George Washington were well-grounded in English legal concepts.
The Great ForgettingThe Great Forgetting occurred when key influences on the Founders fell out of the American consciousness. Here’s how it happened:
As individual Founders died out, their personal memories were lost. They left many documents behind, but many of those documents were inaccessible to most constitutional writers. For example, Madison’s notes of the Constitutional Convention weren't published until after his death in 1836. The debates of the state ratifying conventions weren't freely available until about the same time, and when they were published, it was in imperfect form. The journals of the Continental and Confederation Congresses weren't published until early in the 20th century. Many other records lay unknown and neglected in major university libraries.
Moreover, after the Constitution was adopted Americans quite naturally wanted to be Americans, not merely children of Britain. Noah Webster produced a purely American dictionary. James Kent and Joseph Story produced American legal treatises. Mercy Otis Warren and George Bancroft wrote histories from a strongly American point of view.
Example 1: The Commerce ClauseThe Constitution’s commerce clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) granted Congress the power to regulate “Commerce ... among the several States.” It left the states free to regulate where Congress hadn't done so.
Example 2: ImmigrationThe Constitution grants Congress power to “define and punish ... Offenses against the Law of Nations” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 10). This included regulating immigration. The Constitution also left power to the states to regulate immigration where the federal government hadn't acted.
Example 3: Privileges/ImmunitiesVariations of the word privileges appear three times in the original Constitution and once in the 14th Amendment. The corresponding word immunities appears once in each place.
Both were technical terms in 18th-century law. A privilege was a government-created benefit, an entitlement. Illustrations included government jobs and pensions, and some important legal procedures, such as trial by jury and the writ of habeas corpus. Because a privilege was government-created, the term didn't include natural rights, which were bestowed by “nature and nature’s God.”
Example 4: Paper MoneyA complete review of the Founding Era records shows that while the Founders generally disliked paper money, they did grant Congress the power to issue it and to make it legal tender (pdf).
Example 5: Republic Versus DemocracyThe Founders opposed “pure democracy,” an Aristotelian term for unmitigated mob rule. Otherwise, they used the words “republic” and “democracy” interchangeably. Patrick Henry, for example, referred to the American states—all of which had republican forms—as “democracies.” The definitions of “republic” and “democracy” in 18th-century dictionaries showed no sharp distinction between the terms. Historically, most republics (such as the Roman Republic) had relied on direct popular democracy for their lawmaking (pdf).
The “republic versus democracy” myth has proved very tenacious. Some liberals employ it to argue that states may not require popular votes before raising taxes. Some conservatives use it to bash measures they deem to be too democratic to be republican.
Example 6: Amendments ConventionsThe myths discussed above date from the 19th century, although the claim that an amendments convention is an “unlimited constitutional convention” seems not to have become widespread until the mid-20th century. Although there's no serious doubt that a convention for proposing amendments is a convention of the states limited by topic (pdf), alarms about an “unlimited constitutional convention” still are disseminated for fundraising purposes—most powerfully by Washington-based interests opposed to limiting federal overreach.
These alarms seem plausible only because key information about the constitutional amendment process was lost temporarily during the Great Forgetting.