Watkins - #2By Nancy Thorner – 

What did the American Founders actually intend for the country and does it even matter today?

William Watkins, Jr., as the featured speaker at The Heartland Institute’s Wednesday evening free series of event, spoke about his book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution. Watkin’s book takes a surprising and thought-provoking look at the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and asks what we can learn from them.

William Watkins, Jr. is a research fellow at the Independent Institute. He received his B.A. in history and German summa cum laude from Clemson University and his J.D. cum laude from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He is a former law clerk to Judge William B. Traxler, Jr. of the U.S, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He has served as a prosecutor and defense lawyer and has practiced in various state and federal courts. Other books include Judicial Monarchs: The Case for Restoring Popular Sovereignty in the United States, and the Independent Institute books, Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy; and Patent Trolls: Predatory Litigation and the Smothering of Innovation. 

William Watkins, Jr. introduced by Jim Lakely, Director of Communications at The Heartland Institute

William J. Watkins, in Crossroads for Liberty, rescues the Articles of Confederation from obscurity and condemnation. Watkins does not claim that the Articles constituted a perfect system, but it was a much better system than has been portrayed in history books.

For many years, the Articles of Confederation have been taught in American History class as having created too weak a central government, that it accomplished nothing, and that thankfully it was scrapped and replaced with the U.S. Constitution. Not so, according to Watkins. The Articles needed some reform, but it was a credible document before the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Watkins likewise cleared up a misconception held by many that the Revolutionary War was all about taxation, brought to a head with the Boston Tea Party. Not true, he said. The argument was about sovereignty. Where did it lie? Did it lie in the British Parliament, or would individual states be able to govern themselves. In the Declaration of Independence, King George III of England was mentioned as the recognized power of authority whose removal was necessary for local state assemblies to achieve local rule.

Articles of Confederation Empowered State Governments

As to why the Articles of Confederation were adopted in the first place, patriot leaders at the time didn’t want some far off government telling them what to do concerning local matters. The Articles of Confederation were designed to let the people of each state govern themselves, while forming an alliance to maintain their independence. Delegates couldn’t serve more than three years out of a six-year period. In this way, legislators would feel the bit of the laws they passed.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Federalists like Alexander Hamilton began to express dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation, thinking it a hopelessly weak common government for the United States that needed replacement. Others, like anti-federalist Patrick Henry, strongly voiced how under the Articles of Confederation its government had put an army in the field for seven years to defeat the mighty British Empire. Said Henry: “Ditching the Articles of Confederation would only lead to an increasingly centralized government that would eventually result in weak states dictated to by a centralized government.”

Using the same reasoning as proclaimed by Patrick Henry, Watkins noted how the goals of the Articles of Confederation had been met:

  • Great Britain was defeated. Hadn’t the British Navy ruled the world?
  • Self-government and the states had been preserved.

But economic hardship did exist in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War due to the cost of achieving freedom from Great Britain – i.e. hard cash was limited, the protection of the British Navy was lost, as was the right to trade with the British West Indies. 

Ratification of Constitution Hinged on a Bill of Rights 

Federalists won the argument. Led by Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who believed a Constitution with a federal system of government could accomplish the same thing without the deficiencies in the Articles – and who further argued that because the Articles of Confederation were committed to states’ rights reform of the Articles was not possible — a Constitutional Convention was needed. Subsequently, a Constitution was written during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia by 55 delegates to a Constitutional Convention that was called ostensibly to amend the Articles of Confederation (1781–89), the country’s first written constitution.

The new Constitution was submitted for ratification to the 13 states on September 28, 1787. It was ratified by nine states in June of 1788, as required by Article VII. The date of March 4, 1789 was set by Congress as to when the new government would begin operating, with the first elections under the Constitution held late in 1788. 

Why did four of the 13 states refuse to ratify the Constitution when first submitted to them? As Watkins explained, one of the many points of contention between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the Constitution is that it lacked a Bill of Rights that would place specific limits on government power. Although nine states had ratified the Constitution by June of 1788, the key states of Virginia and New York would only ratify the Constitution after James Madison promised that a Bill of Rights would be added after ratification.

Two states, Rhode Island and North Carolina, refused to ratify without a Bill of Rights. In June 1789, Madison proposed a series of amendments to be debated in the first Congress. These amendments to the United States Constitution (10 of them) became known as the Bill of Rights.

Rough Sailing for the Newly Adopted Constitution of 1787

Watkins enumerated three lies that angered segments of the American population after they had been assured that certain things would not happen with the ratification of the Constitution.

1st lie

Farmers were told that the excise power in the Constitution wouldn’t be used except in unusual situations. The Whiskey Rebellion was a response to the excise tax proposed by Alexander Hamilton, who was Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury in 1791. In January 1791, President George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a seemingly innocuous excise tax “upon spirits distilled within the United States, and for appropriating the same.” What Congress failed to predict was the vehement rejection of this tax by Americans living on the frontier of Western Pennsylvania. By 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the stability of the nascent United States and forced President Washington to personally lead the United States militia westward to stop the rebels. Learn More

2nd lie

It was the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, signed into law by President John Adams, that when put into practice became a black mark on the Nation’s reputation. People were lied to again. In direct violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech, the Sedition Act permitted the prosecution of individuals who voiced or printed what the government deemed to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States. Fourteen Republicans, mainly journalists, were prosecuted, and some imprisoned, under the act.

3rd lie

Alexander Hamilton’s claim that the Articles of Confederation were useless, and the only remedy was to draft a new governing document.

Anticipated Fears about 1787 Constitution Were Not Speculative in Nature 

Watkins suggested that our Constitution of 1787 is not the greatest gift of political science that the world has ever seen.

1. How can one size fit all with a nation of 50 states?

2. How can a national government be in charge of 300-plus million Americans? 

3. Shouldn’t individual states serve as laboratories of experimentation and policy making?

4. Does James Madison’s worry about the accumulation of power, which, he said “in one place is paramount to tyranny,” seem justified?

5. How can “We the People” monitor those we elect given the super-sized districts they represent? Watkins believes that the present system of limiting the House of Representatives to only 435 members is detrimental to limited government, for as the population expands those representatives become increasing disconnected to the very people they are supposed to be representing.

6. Can representative government even exist in a country of this size?

A massive shift of power happened when Senate members were elected. The Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution – proposed by the 62nd Congress in 1912 – established the popular election of United States Senators by the people of the states. The amendment supersedes Article I, §3, Clauses 1 and 2 of the Constitution, under which senators were elected by state legislatures.

As Watkins stated, the Founding Father reasoned that only licentious behavior and luxury could destroy the Constitution. Some 230 years later, this long-ago fear has been realized, as the founding principles of this nation have been eroded and cast aside in the interim. 

Human nature is flawed, and, as noted by Jefferson, “the chains of the Constitution” were needed, but what can now be done? As reasoned by Watkins, we certainly cannot return to the Articles of Confederation, nor is it possible to return to the Constitution, at least not as it was first conceived by our Founding Fathers.

Watkins suggested that general education is needed so the public, and especially young people, come to realize that the Socialism spouted by Bernie Sanders, embraced without even realizing what was being offered, is an evil and unworkable system of government.  

Selected Questions and Answers

Q: Why was the American Revolution different from revolutions in other nations?

A: Our revolution was based on the Rule of Law, whether sovereignty existed with the King of England or with state assemblies, which gave us a foundation upon which to base our government. The American people perceived that things were out of kilter and had to be restored.

Q: Is an Article V Convention a realistic plan? Is this an efficient way to address some of the flaws in our Constitution?

A: Watkins didn’t think it wise to take what we have and then trust that the results will be positive. As Watkins notes in his book: “There never have been enough states requesting a convention and this is for good reason. First, no one knows whether such a convention would be limited or unlimited in its scope. If the states requested a convention to consider proposing a balanced budget amendment, would the convention be prohibited from also offering amendments on matters such as abortion or capital punishment?” Watkins adds, “A convention could result in much chaos and constitutional uncertainty.”

“On paper,” Watkins laments, “they [the states] could demand a convention, but in reality Congress holds all the cards when it comes to constitutional change.” Instead, Watkins argues that “the states need the ability to propose and consider amendments without the involvement of the national legislature or the risk associated with a convention.” 

Q: Why the need for the Bill of Rights? 

A: People and states were fearful of a new federal government having too much power. 

Watch here the YouTube video of William J. Watkins, Jr. discussing his insightful book, Crossroads for Liberty. 

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The Bloody Shirt

January 16, 2013

By Nancy Thorner and Ed Ingold –

When reports of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut reached the public on Dec. 14, many Americans broke down and wept at the thought of a monster shooting helpless children like they were rats in a garbage dump. Even after a month it is still seems unthinkable. We are want to reflect that hideous act whenever children are seen with their parents, or we interact with our own children and grandchildren, many of whom are old enough to understand that tragedy, wondering how it might affect them?

As time progressed, we observed how others wasted no time weeping, but rushed to take advantage of the grief that swept the nation for their own political ends. “Let’s take away the guns that caused this tragedy,” became the battle cry of the Left. Like spiders ready to pounce at the first vibration in their web, these zealots had their bloody shirts in hand, waiting for the next crisis as an excuse to wave them in front of the public.

The phrase comes from the elections of 1872 and 1876, when reconstruction politicians literally waved bloody relics from the Civil War in their assault on Southern leaders. “Waving the bloody shirt’ has been used to define someone who brings up a past injustice or mistreatment in history to justify or cover up an injustice being committed in the present. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waving_the_bloody_shirt

The similar refrain was heard after each gun-related tragedy as in 1968 (Kennedy and King); 1986 (Reagan and Brady) and in1994 (Westfield High School Massacre). http://americanhorrowstory.wikia.com/wiki/Westfield_High/Massacre Sometimes we’ve listened, but over time the mantra lost its effectiveness because the “solutions” had no effect on the problem. Weapons were in the hands of madmen who were unopposed when they chose to act.

The Westfield High School massacre of 1994 did prompt the passage, spear-headed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), of a federal assault-weapons ban in 1994 that lasted 10 years. But the decade-long gun ban didn’t stop the Columbine High School massacre from occurring on April 20,1999 in Colorado, where two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered a total of 12 students and one teachers, after which the pair committed suicide. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre.

Experts who have studied the law tend to agree that it was rife with loopholes and generally ineffective at curbing gun violence. The primary “loophole” being that not all of the guns were banned and collected, which is impossible on practical and Constitutional grounds. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/17/every

Just as well, too. Consider Great Britain, which was successful collecting nearly all guns from citizens by 2008, with a history of repression long before the American Revolution, before even the Tudors and Plantagenet. Their first response was always to disarm the populace. Gun crimes, never common, decreased for a while, but are now beginning to rise. Violent crimes of other sorts have skyrocketed, mainly because citizens cannot defend themselves. The answer is not stronger laws and fewer guns in the hands of good citizens, but fewer guns in the hands of criminals and the realization that defense against crime begins at home.

Nonplussed by history, anti-gun zealots realize that to be effective, a campaign against guns has to take place quickly before passions cool. They best take place in the dark of night, out of public view, as in the the legislatures of New York and Illinois.

Yesterday Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York lawmakers, in an attempt to set the tone for the nation, agreed to a broad package of changes to gun laws that would expand the state’s ban on “assault” weapons and include new measures to keep gun away from people with mental illnesses. A legislative trick was employed to forego normal readings, debate and public comment, enabling the legislation to pass a bill in the middle of the night for a final vote the next day in the Assembly. What is so strange is that the NY Senate is controlled by Republicans! http://nraila.org/legislation/state-legislation/2013/1/urgent!-new-york-second-amendment-and-legislative-process-assaulted-in-albany-late-last-night.aspx

According to Gov. Cuomo, the legislative package will be “the most comprehensive package in the nation,” would ban any gun magazine that can hold over 7 rounds of ammunition — comprising most of the firearms used by citizens for self defense — and would require background checks of ammunition buyers and automated alerts to law enforcement of high-volume purchases. Although part of the 1968 Federal gun law, the controls on ammunition purchases were abandoned after a few years due to cost and ineffectiveness.

Rather than intercept the few, they trample on millions, in the vain attempt to disarm a relatively few bad guys. That may have worked for Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, who smashed their opposition in pursuit of a few traitors, but it will not work in this nation where many Americans value their freedom and hold sacred the Second Amendment.

Illinois inherited Chicago police commissioner Garry McCarthy from New York, who shares most of the views of the state he left. In a radio interview, he stated that Chicago police are prepared to shoot any citizen observed holding a firearm, as a warning in the event that Illinois allows private citizens to carry concealed weapons. New York loses an off-duty policeman from time to time in just this way – shot by police while holding their weapon in an act of self defense. http://www.libertynews.com/2013/01/chicago-top-cop-expects-people-lawfully-carrying-guns-will-be-shot-by-mistake-prone-police/

Today at 11:45 a.m., President Obama will stand before television cameras, attended by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and members of Congress active in efforts to impose new restrictions on guns, to offer his “comprehensive” proposal for unilateral action to combat gun violence? Obama will be surrounded by children used as pawns who supposedly wrote letters decrying gun violence (at the urging of their teachers?), perhaps symbolic of the bloody shirts of the last century, in order to make the point. http://www.bgreithart.com/Big-Journalism/2013/01/15/Obbama-to-announce-gun-ban-surrounded-by-children

What was done at Sandy Hook School is history. Now it’s time to weep for the Republic, and for the Constitution on which it was built. For if our leaders continue to dismantle the foundation of our Republic, who needs to worry about enemies from abroad?

Initially published at Illinois Review on Wednesday, January 16.

The nation’s attention is being focused on guns, and gun ownership. To say that the way in which the attention is being focused, and the specific issues on which it is focused is flawed would be a profound understatement.

One position being voiced, would, if adopted by the defenders of the 2nd Amendment, do more to undermine it than to uphold it. That is the idea that “some guns are bad”, or that “some guns should only be available to government”, or that the discussion should focus on “needs”, not rights. Because this position, in its various forms, concedes the argument to the gun-banning crowd, it would have the same effect as all other appeasements have had throughout history: it just encourages the other side they can achieve complete victory.

Here’s what is wrong with banning guns, types of guns, or specific guns. 1. Rights are rights, not needs. 2. As a practical matter, only the law-abiding gun owners would be affected by any new law, and the guns we may own are not a threat to anyone, anyway.

The argument against a ban thus occurs on two levels: 1. Moral and ethical: the right to bear arms is a natural right, the curtailment of which constitutes a prima facie injury to those who choose to exercise it. 2. Pragmatic: banning certain weapons, or types of weapons would not keep criminals from possessing and using them.

On that point, it is quite pragmatic to argue that we who do not commit crimes should have access to the same level of weaponry that is available to criminals.

This all gets very silly, when one considers that the opponents of private firearm ownership are exactly that: opponents of private firearm ownership. For each weapon, of any type, they will present an argument–of sorts–why “no one needs to own one”. Like big cats on the African plain, they pick off stragglers by separating them from the herd. Today it’s military-style weapons; tomorrow it’s “powerful” handguns; pretty soon, it’s that old single shot .22 squirrel gun your grandfather got when he was 10. Notice the “herd” has shrunk to the point it is totally defenseless. Unlike the cats, who only want a meal, the opponents of private firearm ownership truly will not rest until ALL guns, of EVERY type have been outlawed. TO THINK OTHERWISE IS TO MAKE A DREADFUL MISTAKE.

Beyond that, they are part of a larger group that has as its goal rendering the Constitution and all of the Bill of Rights irrelevant. As our President said before the 2008 election, what bothered him about the U.S. Constitution was that it is largely a document that places restrictions on the government. For many of our opponents, that makes the document “seriously flawed”–so much so that it cannot be fixed by amendment, it must, instead, be treated as a “living document”, until every part of it has been re-interpreted, stood on its ear, and until its meaning is the opposite of the original intent. “Animal Farm”, déjà vu.

The only sane position to take is to oppose—vigorously oppose any new restrictions on gun ownership.

Initially published at Illinois Review on January 10, 2013.