Our Readers' Opinions
October 30, 2009
SVG’s versus USA’s Constitutional Processes: Which was Better?

by Camillo Gonsalves 30.OCT.09

The Constitutional debate has captivated our nation, and most citizens are actively engaged in discussions on the substance of the document. A few persons, however, continue to bemoan perceived procedural flaws. Was the process rushed? Was it sufficiently inclusive? Is it overly politicised?{{more}}

In attempting to respond to some of these procedural concerns, it may be helpful to take a look at the constitutional history of other countries. Almost 222 years ago, and a mere 11 years after declaring independence form the British, the United States was in the midst of its own effort to craft a home-grown constitution. The historical similarities between then and now are strong – and instructive.

The USA constitution was drafted in Philadelphia between May 25 and September 17, 1787 – a period of less than four months. Indeed, even the four-month period is misleading, as there were a number of adjournments in the process, which allowed drafters to take the long horse ride back to their respective states for various reasons.

A total of only 55 men, the so-called “founding fathers,” discussed, debated and drafted the constitution in isolation, although the population of the United States at the time exceeded 2.5 million people. The USA constitution was not subject to a popular referendum. It only had to be approved by the parliaments of the individual states. Although two-thirds of the states had to join the new “United States,” for it to come into existence, the parliamentary votes in each individual state were decided by simple majority. Some states, like Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, ratified the Constitution less than three months after it was drafted. The entire process, from the beginning of drafting to final ratification, took only 13 months. The remaining four states soon followed suit.

In other words, 55 men (no women participated) came together, and over the space of four months, drafted the USA constitution. Thirteen months after they first met, the constitution was adopted by nine independent state legislatures. Compare this with the Vincentian exercise in constitution-making: The process is now in its seventh year, with almost a full month remaining. It has included not simply a small group of “founding fathers,” but instead engaged the entire population – including those in the Diaspora. We required two-thirds of the parliament for approval, not the ‘50% plus one’ of American legislatures. And our constitution is subject to a further requirement of a referendum, something the USA did not require.

Was there opposition?

From the outset, there was opposition to the US constitutional process. The state of Rhode Island refused to even send a delegation to the drafting convention. Thirteen of the 55 men who participated in the drafting process withdrew before it was complete. Another three men refused to sign off on the final document, and became strong spokesmen for what was to become the USA’s “no vote” campaign.

There were a number of reasons for the opposition to the US constitution, but a few are eerily familiar. The opposition claimed that America was not ready to become a republic. They argued that the US draft constitution did not go far enough in protecting individual rights, including human rights and the right to property. Further, they were opposed to what they thought was too much power in the hands of the executive. There was also a great deal of personal political animosity that fueled the opposition. George Clinton, a prominent oppositionist, was a staunch political opponent of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, two of the founding fathers. Patrick Henry of Virginia was an avowed political enemy of James Madison, who was a strong supporter of the constitution. Historians agree that these political rivalries – and not major philosophical differences – fueled a great deal of the opposition movement.

The Media Battle

Once the constitution was drafted, it became subject to a spirited battle about whether or not it should be adopted. In 18th Century USA, there was no talk radio, Internet or television. However, a strong battle was waged in newspapers nationwide.

The supporters of the constitution were called the “Federalists.” Under a variety of pseudonyms, they authored 85 articles that appeared in American newspapers in support of the constitution. These articles, now called “The Federalist Papers,” remain influential in modern constitutional interpretation. The “anti-Federalists” were equally active, publishing an even greater number of articles under pen-names that argued against the constitution.

Was it Perfect?

The four-month process of drafting the constitution was marked by a series of arguments and compromises. At the end of the process, no single participant was fully satisfied with the process or the document that it produced. Benjamin Franklin, a famous American whose portrait now graces their $100 bill, summed up both his dissatisfaction and support by saying:

“There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. . . It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies.”

In the end, despite the perceived shortcomings, and the fact that almost 30% of the drafters refused to sign it, all states eventually put their nation above their political rivalries and ratified the constitution. Even the state of Rhode Island, which refused to participate in the drafting of the document, eventually ratified it in a close 34-32 vote.

History Repeated?

It is always difficult to compare two different eras, cultures and countries. But some historical facts are clear: The Vincentian constitutional process is more deliberate, more participatory, and more democratically inclusive than that of the United States. The political bickering is nothing new, and even some of the subjects argued about (Republican status, protection of individual rights, not going far enough, executive power) remain the same. Both the USA and SVG constitutions fell short of perfection or satisfying all constituencies. Then, as now, some politicians pulled out of the process. Then, as now, there was a “vote no” campaign.

Then, as now, the naysayers found themselves on the wrong side of history.