Ch. 5) The class character of the U.S. Constitution

Share on twitter Tweet
Share on facebook Share

Ch. 5) The class character of the U.S. Constitution

“Founding Father” George Washington was a rich slave owner who owed his fortune to the stolen labor of kidnapped Africans.
“Founding Father” George Washington was a rich slave owner who owed his fortune to the stolen labor of kidnapped Africans.

In history and civics classrooms all over the United States, students are taught from an early age to revere the “Founding Fathers” for drafting a document that is the bulwark of democracy and freedom—the U.S. Constitution. We are taught that the Constitution is a work of genius that established a representative government, safeguarded by the system of “checks and balances,” and guarantees fundamental rights such as the freedom of speech, religion and assembly. According to this mythology, the Constitution embodies and promotes the spirit and power of the people.

Why, then, if the country’s founding document is so perfect, are so many people in the United States suffering? If the Constitution, the supreme law of this country, is written to protect and promote the interests of the people, why are there 13.5 million people going hungry every year in the United States? Why are more than one in 100 adults behind bars? Why can’t the victims of Hurricane Katrina get the assistance they need and deserve? How can it be that the richest 20 percent own 84 percent of wealth, leaving 80 percent of the population to scramble to get a piece of the remaining 16 percent?

This contradiction between reality and rhetoric can be understood by examining the conditions under which the U.S. Constitution was drafted, including the class background of the drafters. Although it is touted today as a document enshrining “democratic values,” it was widely hated by the lower classes that had participated in the 1776-1783 Revolutionary War. Popular opposition was so great, in fact, that the drafting of the Constitution had to be done in secret in a closed-door conference.

The purpose of the Constitution was to reorganize the form of government so as to enhance the centralized power of the state. It allowed for national taxation that provided the funds for a national standing army. Local militias were considered inadequate to battle the various Native American nations whose lands were coveted by land speculators. A national army was explicitly created to suppress slave rebellions, insurgent small farmers and the newly emerging landless working class that was employed for wages.

The goal of the Constitution and the form of government was to defend the minority class of affluent property owners against the anticipated “tyranny of the majority.” As James Madison, a principal author of the Constitution, wrote: “But the most common and durable source of factions [dissenting groups] has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”1

The newly centralized state set forth in the Constitution was also designed to regulate interstate trade. This was necessary since cutthroat competition between different regions and states was degenerating into trade wars, boycotts and outright military conflict.

The U.S. Congress was created as a forum where commercial and political conflicts between merchants, manufacturers and big farmers could be debated and resolved without resort to economic and military war.

Conditions leading to the U.S. Revolution

To understand the class interests reflected in the Constitution, it is necessary to examine the social and economic conditions of the time. In the decades leading up to the U.S. revolutionary period, colonial society was marked by extreme oppression and class disparities.

The economies of the colonies were originally organized in the interests of the British merchant capitalists who profited by trade with the colonies. These interests were guaranteed by the British monarchy headed by King George III. In the southern colonies like Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas, a settler class of slave-owning big planters grew rich providing the cotton that fed Britain’s massive textile manufacturing industry.

In the northern colonies, merchant economies in the port cities and associated small manufacturing industries formed the basis for the division between rich and poor. In the countryside, huge landowners who owed their holdings to privilege in Europe squeezed the limited opportunities of small farmers.

In 1700, for example, 75 percent of land in colonial New York state belonged to fewer than 12 individuals. In Virginia, seven individuals owned over 1.7 million acres.2 By 1767, the richest 10 percent of Boston taxpayers held about 66 percent of Boston’s taxable wealth, while the poorest 30 percent of taxpayers had no property at all.3 Similar conditions could be found throughout the colonies. Clearly, there was an established ruling class within the colonies, although this grouping was ultimately subordinate to the British crown.

On the other hand, the majority of society—Black slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants and poor farmers—experienced super-exploitation and oppression. Women of all classes had, like their peers in Europe, no formal political rights.

With these growing class antagonisms, the 18th century was characterized by mass discontent, which led to frequent demonstrations and even uprisings by those on the bottom rung of colonial society.

Between 1676 and 1760, there were 18 uprisings aimed at overthrowing a colonial government. There were six slave rebellions as well as 40 riots like the numerous tenant uprisings in New Jersey and New York directed against landlords.4 Many of these uprisings were directed at the local elite and not the British Empire.

This local elite in colonial society found itself squeezed between the wrath of the lower working classes, on one side, and the British Empire, on the other.

Following the 1763 British victory in the Seven Years’ War in Europe, which included the so-called French and Indian War in North America, the French position as a colonial power competing with Britain was seriously downgraded as a result of their defeat. The French did send troops and military aid to support the colonists in their war for independence from Britain a decade later.

Following the defeat of the French in 1763, George III attempted to stabilize relations with Native Americans, who had fought primarily alongside the defeated French, by issuing the Proclamation of 1763. This decree declared Indian lands beyond the Appalachians out of bounds for colonial settlers, thereby limiting vast amounts of wealth the settlers could steal from the indigenous people. Chauvinist expansionism thus became fuel for anti-British sentiment in the colonies.

Making matters worse for the colonists, the British Empire began demanding more resources from the colonies to pay for the war. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the fourth Stamp Act, basically increasing taxes on the colonists. The Stamp Act of 1765 incited anger across all class strata, including British merchants, and was ultimately repealed in 1766.

The struggle around the Stamp Act demonstrated a shift in power relations between the colonists and the British Empire. While the local American elites were in less and less need of Britain’s assistance, the British Empire was in ever growing need of the wealth and resources of the colonies.

In summary, there were at least four factors that would motivate the American “new rich” to seek independence from the British crown. First, the anger of the poor and oppressed against the rich could be deflected from the local elite and channeled into hatred of the British crown—developing a new sense of patriotism. Second, the wealth produced and extracted in the colonies would remain in the pockets of the local ruling class rather than being transferred to the British Empire. Third, the local ruling class would greatly increase its wealth through the confiscation of property of those loyal to Britain. And lastly, independence would nullify the Proclamation of 1763, opening up vast amounts of Native land.

Two points qualified the drive to independence, which ultimately manifested itself in the sizable “Loyalist” or pro-British population during the revolution. First, despite the conflict between the colonists and the British government over wealth, colonists and colonizers were united against the Native American population, whom both tried to massacre and loot. The revolutionary struggle was not against exploitation, but to determine who would do the exploiting.

Secondly, in spite of the disputes over who got how much of the wealth generated by the colonies, this wealth primarily depended on the integration of the economy with British merchant capitalism. While the revolutionists wanted political distance from the empire, they could not afford a complete break.

The leaders of the U.S. Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment among the lowest classes of colonial society was largely spontaneous and unorganized. Leadership of the anti-British rebellion, groups like the Sons of Liberty, originated from the middle and upper classes. Some poor workers and farmers did join their ranks, allowing their leadership to garner popular support.

These leaders were conscious of the fact that only one class would be really liberated through independence from Britain: the local ruling class. However, in order to carry this out, they would have to create a façade of liberating the masses.

This is why the 1776 Declaration of Independence—the document used to inspire colonists to fight against Britain—includes language that was so much more radical than that of the 1787 U.S. Constitution. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had originally drafted a paragraph in the Declaration of Independence condemning George III for transporting slaves from Africa to the colonies and “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”5 Jefferson himself personally owned hundreds of slaves until the day he died, but he understood the appeal such a statement would have.

Instead, the final draft of the Declaration accused the British monarchy of inciting slave rebellions and supporting Indian land claims against the settlers. “He [the king] has incited domestic insurrection amongst us,” the final version read, “and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.”

Sixty-nine percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence held colonial office under England. When the document was read in Boston, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up for a draft to fight the British. The rich avoided the draft by paying for substitutes, while the poor had no choice but to fight.

Slavery existed in all 13 British colonies, but it was the anchor for the economic system in the mid-Atlantic and southern states.

Thousands of slaves fought on both sides of the War of Independence. The British governor of Virginia had issued a proclamation promising freedom to any slave who could make it to the British lines—as long as their owner was not loyal to the British Crown. Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans did just that. Thousands managed to leave with the British when they were defeated, but tens of thousands more were returned to enslavement after the colonies won their “freedom” in 1783.

Following the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which established the independence of the colonies, vast amounts of wealth and land were confiscated from Loyalists. Some of this land was parceled out to small farmers to draw support for the new government.

While most Loyalists left the United States, some were protected. For instance, Lord Fairfax of Virginia, who owned over 5 million acres of land across 21 counties, was protected because he was a friend of George Washington—at that time, among the richest men in America.6

The drafting of the Constitution

In May 1787, 55 men—now known as the “Founding Fathers”—gathered in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention to draft the new country’s legal principles and establish the new government. Alexander Hamilton—a delegate of New York, George Washington’s closest advisor and the first secretary of the treasury—summed up their task: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people. … Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.”7 Indeed, the task of the 55 men was to draft a document that would guarantee the power and privileges of the new ruling class while making just enough concessions to deflect dissent from other classes in society.

Who were the Founding Fathers? It goes without saying that all the delegates were white, property-owning men. Citing the work of Charles Beard, Howard Zinn wrote, “A majority of them were lawyers by profession, most of them were men of wealth, in land, slaves, manufacturing or shipping, half of them had money loaned out at interest, and 40 of the 55 held government bonds.” 8

The vast majority of the population was not represented at the Constitutional Convention: There were no women, African Americans, Native Americans or poor whites. The U.S. Constitution was written by property-owning white men to give political power, including voting rights, exclusively to property-owning white men, who made up about 10 percent of the population.

Alexander Hamilton advocated for monarchical-style government with a president and senate chosen for life. The Constitutional Convention opted, rather, for a “popularly” elected House of Representatives, a Senate chosen by state legislators, a president elected by electors chosen by state legislators, and Supreme Court justices appointed by the president.

Democracy was intended to be a façade. In the 10th article of the “Federalist Papers”—85 newspaper articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay advocating ratification of the U.S. Constitution—Madison wrote that the establishment of the government set forth by the Constitution would control “domestic faction and insurrection” deriving from “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal distribution of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.” During the convention, Alexander Hamilton delivered a speech advocating a strong centralized state power to “check the imprudence of democracy.”

It is quite telling that the Constitution took the famous phrase of the Declaration of Independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and changed it to “life, liberty and property.” The debates of the Constitutional Convention were largely over competing economic interests of the wealthy, not a debate between haves and have-nots.

The new Constitution legalized slavery. Article 4, Section 2 required that escaped slaves be delivered back to their masters. Slaves would count as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of deciding representation in Congress. The “three-fifths compromise” was between southern slaveholding delegates who wanted to count slaves in the population to increase their representation, while delegates from the northern states wanted to limit their influence and so not count slaves as people at all.

Furthermore, some of the most important constitutional rights, such as the right to free speech, the right to bear arms and the right to assembly were not intended to be included in the Constitution at all. The Bill of Rights was amended to the Constitution four years after the Constitutional Convention had adjourned so that the document could get enough support for ratification.

As a counter to the Bill of Rights, the Constitution gave Congress the power to limit these rights to varying degrees. For example, seven years after the Constitution was amended to provide the right to free speech, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to say or write anything “false, scandalous or malicious” against the government, Congress or president with the intent to defame or build popular hatred of these entities.

Today, many people look to the Constitution—and especially to the Bill of Rights—as the only guarantor of basic political rights. And while the Constitution has never protected striking workers from being beaten over the heads by police clubs while exercising their right to assemble outside plant gates, or protected revolutionaries’ right to freedom of speech as they are jailed or gunned down, the legal gains for those without property do need to be defended.

But defending those rights has to be done with the knowledge that the founding document of the United States has allowed the scourge of unemployment, poverty and exploitation to carry on unabated because it was a document meant to enshrine class oppression. A constitution for a socialist United States would begin with the rights of working and oppressed people.

During the period leading to the second U.S. Revolution, commonly known as the Civil War, militant opponents of slavery traveled the country to expose the criminal institution that was a bedrock of U.S. society. On July 4, 1854, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution before thousands of supporters of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He called it a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” referring to its enshrining of slavery.

The crowd shouted back, “Amen.” 9

Although slavery has been abolished, the property that is central to the Constitution—private property, the right to exploit the majority for the benefit of the tiny minority—remains. In that sense, Garrison’s words still ring true.


1. James Madison, Federalist Papers Number 10, (
2. M. Parenti, A Constitution for the Few: Looking Back to the Beginning, (
3. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 65.
4. Ibid., p. 59.
5. Ibid., p. 72.
6. Ibid., p. 84.
7. Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence, p. 152.
8. Howard Zinn, People’s History, p. 89.
9. Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence, p. 231.

Share this post

No comments

Add yours