The Danger of a Convention of States
Posted on: February 12, 2015
By Don Fotheringham
This article refutes the most common claims of an intense drive to stampede the public and state legislators into calling for a dangerous second constitutional convention (con-con) under the pretense of solving the very real problem of an out-of-control federal government.
The latest fad in con-con circles is the notion that Article V establishes a special breed of single-issue convention that empowers the states to limit the convention to a pre-set agenda. Con-con promoter Michael Farris asserts that an Article V convention is limited to consideration of single amendments and cannot, therefore, stray from its call and make wholesale changes in the Constitution.
Somewhere in his scholarship Mr. Farris has missed the point. In a free society the people are the supreme sovereign authority, and the power of a constitutional convention flows directly from the people. That is the power by which the states were created when freed from Great Britain. That is also the power that created the United States Constitution in 1787. Mr. Farris has it all backward; he has the creature (the states) dictating to their creator (the convention of the people).
When the people meet in convention they are under no obligation to abide by the terms of the state resolutions. That is why Article V establishes no procedures, other than to apply. Once two-thirds apply, Congress shall call a convention, and once the convention convenes, it is under the highest sovereign authority of a free country: the people. At that point the rules, procedures, and agenda are set by the convention. Neither Congress nor the state legislatures have any authority or control over a convention once it is called to order.
The idea that an Article V convention is something different from the Convention of 1787 is refuted by the official record. During the original Convention, when deputy Roger Sherman was making some incidental language changes in Article V, the record states:
Mr. Sherman moved to strike out of Article V, after “legislatures” the words “of three fourths” and so after the word “Conventions” leaving future Conventions to act in this matter, like the present Convention according to circumstances .1
In other words, they expected future conventions to be just like the present Convention which had power to create, alter, or abolish governments. Nowhere in the Records of the Federal Convention, or in the Federalist Papers, do the Framers imply that an Article V convention is anything other than the type of convention that was then underway in Philadelphia. Conventions are conventions whether intended for single amendments or wholesale changes.
A “limited constitutional convention” is an oxymoron.
The right of free citizens to amend or alter their form of government exists inherently with or without Article V. During the 1787 Convention James Madison stated that:
“The people were in fact, the fountain of all power, and by resorting to them, all difficulties were got over. They could alter constitutions as they pleased. It was a principle in the bills of rights that the first principles [the power of the people] might be resorted to.” 2
In 1967, Senator Sam Ervin was so intrigued by Article V that he thoroughly researched the subject and came to the conclusion that:
“… as We the People are the true de jure sovereign of these states, We the People cannot be held by anyone to any single issue once we convene our convention. If we so choose, the entire Constitution could be rewritten.”3
The Falsified Purpose of Article V
The con-con men have falsified the meaning and purpose of Article V. Here in bold type is a direct quotation from con-con collaborator, Ken Cuccinelli, who asserted that:
“Our Founding Fathers gave the states a method of proposing amendments to our Constitution to rein in the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. Proud Virginian George Mason insisted that one day the federal government would outgrow its bounds, and when that day came, the states would need to have the ability to amend the Constitution to limit the power of the federal government. An Article V Convention of States is the specific recourse he and our Founders put in the Constitution for that purpose.” 4
Every word of the above statement is false. Our Founding Fathers did not create Article V “to rein in the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” The Constitution they had just written already did that. That was the reason for drafting the Constitution in the first place.
Moreover, “Proud Virginian George Mason” never said “one day the federal government would outgrow its bounds, and when that day came, the states would need to have the ability to amend the Constitution to limit the power of the federal government.” This is an outlandish lie. It cannot be found in the Records of the Federal Convention, or in any of the official founding documents. This fabrication is inconsistent with the main purpose of Article V, which Mr. Mason clearly explained in the official record:
“Col. [George] Mason urged the necessity of such a provision. The plan now to be formed will certainly be defective, as the Confederation has been found on trial to be. Amendments therefore will be necessary, and it will be better to provide for them, in an easy, regular and Constitutional way than to trust to chance and violence.” 5
James Madison also explained the purpose of Article V:
“That useful alterations will be suggested by experience could not but be foreseen. It was requisite therefore that a mode for introducing them should be provided. The mode preferred by the Convention seems to be stamped with every mark of propriety. It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable: and that extreme difficulty which might perpetuate its discovered faults. It, moreover, equally enables the general and state governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side or on the other.” 6
The Illegal “Assembly of State Legislatures”
Without the slightest concept of the principles of America’s convention system, or of the sovereign source of government-making, a private group of state legislators has undertaken the task of making the rules for a future con-con. Their deliberations are a sad illustration of the failure of American education. Under the name, Assembly of State Legislatures (ASL), they purport to emulate the 1786 Annapolis meeting in which the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation were discussed and a date set for revising them.
The ASL resolution asserts that the state legislatures have “relinquished power to the national government that has upset the balance originally provided by the Founders in our federalist system….” That is not exactly what has happened. The states have not relinquished power. The federal government has usurped power in violation of its constitutional limits. The imbalance of power stems from federal encroachment, not from any abrogation of power by the states, and certainly not as a result of any structural defects. The purpose and power of a constitutional convention is to amend or rewrite the Constitution. It is obviously impossible to amend the Constitution to restore a provision that was never taken out of it. The delegated federal powers and the residual state powers, as established in the Constitution, remain in place exactly as they were in 1791 when the Bill of Rights was added.
Absent any concept of constitution-making principles, the men and women at the ASL are making rules that will be tossed out at the con-con door. We can only assume that the ASL’s rule-making charade is a device for deceiving state legislators, assuring them that they can apply with confidence for a structured con-con.
One of our nation’s top legal scholars, Charles L. Black, of Yale University Law School, pointed out that during our nation’s first 100 years all convention applications were for a general convention. This means that during the lifetime of our founders, and long thereafter, all state legislators had a clear understanding of the autonomy of the convention itself. Mr. Black believes that any state application that attempts to limit a convention to a specific topic is null and void. 7 The 1786 Annapolis meeting — on which the ASL hangs its hat — did not create the rules or procedures for the Philadelphia Convention. This was all done on May 25, 1787 after George Washington called the Convention to order.
State legislators who are invited into the ASL should challenge its premises and reject the bogus authority of a private organization to establish rules for a federal convention.
Even the Proposed Amendments are Phony
The con-con men, who profess so much love for the Constitution, never say they think the document is flawed, or that the framers goofed, or that the Constitution has outlived its warranty. Rather, they present a list of problems that they claim the Constitution has failed to address and which they insist can be remedied only by means of a new convention. Here are several amendments that Mr. Farris, founder of the Convention of States Project, thinks would be up for discussion in a forthcoming convention:
- Balanced Budget Amendment
- A redefinition of the General Welfare Clause
- A redefinition of the Commerce Clause
- A prohibition of using international treaties and law to govern the domestic law of the United States
- Limitation on using Executive Orders to enact laws
- Imposing term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court
A Balanced Budget Amendment
The con-con men blame the Constitution for the absence of a balanced budget provision; however, adherence to the Constitution is the original balanced budget mechanism. Obedience to the Constitution would quickly restore fiscal sanity and limited government.
Con-con advocates never identify the cause of our budget woes, such as the unconstitutional agencies that sap $billions out of the Treasury. If we are really serious about budget deficits, why not abolish everything for which there is no constitutional authority?
A simple majority in Congress could, for example, repeal the legislation that created the Department of Energy, the Environment Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, and Foreign Aid, and we would instantly have a $200 billion surplus! It is nonsense to claim the Constitution needs a budget amendment when getting our nation back under the Constitution is the obvious remedy.
Term Limits for Congress
On this issue8 Alexander Hamilton said: “Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection.”9 The Constitution does not establish term limits for the simple reason that the Continental Congress had already had term limits and they did not work. Why? Because term limits gave the country a perpetual lame duck Congress. Under term limits a politician knew he would never have to stand for re-election; consequently, if the man was prone to corruption, he got his corruption over with in a hurry.
During the 1787 Convention, Gouverneur Morris objected to a proposed term limits clause by pointing out that, “The ineligibility proposed by the clause as it stood tended to destroy the great motive to good behavior, the hope of being rewarded by a re-appointment. It was saying to him ‘make hay while the sun shines.’” 10
Deputy Roger Sherman added that, “Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers. They also give permanency to the government by preserving that good behavior because it ensures their re-election…. In Connecticut we have existed 132 years under an annual government, and as long as a man behaves himself well, he is never turned out of office.”11
The con-con promoters study the same documents we study; therefore, we know that they know that term limits is a phony issue. They cling to the term limits ruse apparently because the idea has appeal and looks “plausible at first sight.”
The greatest term limit device ever invented is the ballot box.
Term Limits for Justices of the Supreme Court
The Constitution already has a term limit law for the judiciary. It is called impeachment. The fact that judges are rarely impeached when they should be impeached is no fault of the Constitution.
Most social problems come through cases that arrive at the Supreme Court on appeal, such as abortion and school prayer. Getting the High Court out of these sensitive moral issues does not require an amendment. It is clearly within the power of Congress to limit the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.12 And with respect to the abusive federal district courts, these are all the creation of Congress and can be controlled, changed, or abolished by the same simple majority by which they were created.
Redefining the Welfare Clause
It is hard to believe that Mr. Farris and his con-con collaborators never looked in an eighteenth century dictionary to find out what the framers meant by “welfare.” The 1787 definition is: happiness, success, prosperity.13 The word means to fare well. The General Welfare Clause has nothing to do with government charity or handouts. The Preamble simply identifies what “We the people” have done to “promote the general happiness, success, and prosperity, and secure the blessings of liberty….” The Constitution is perfectly perfect in this respect. The only “redefining” needed for this clause is a little less socialism in the classroom and a little more integrity in Congress.
Redefining the Commerce Clause
This clause was not misunderstood during the lifetimes of the Framers. Its purpose was well-known and repeatedly defined. It was also explained in the Federalist Papers, essays no. 22 and 44. The states had opposed the taxation of goods passing through their borders, and the monopolization of certain foreign imports. Expediting the flow of commerce was a high priority of the Convention, and every delegate understood its importance and exact purpose. It is no fault of the Constitution that the Commerce Clause is flagrantly abused, nor does it make sense to call a convention to clarify it. Every unconstitutional activity assumed under the pretext of the Commerce Clause can be overturned by a simple majority in Congress. No need to tamper with the Constitution.
Redefining the Treaty Clause
Presumably Michael Farris is referring to Article VI in which “… all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.” He apparently thinks this means international treaties are superior to United States domestic law and sees this as a reason to amend Article VI. If Professor Farris taught his students that the Supremacy Clause was a defect in the Constitution, we feel sorry for the students and their misinformed teacher.
Under the Articles of Confederation treaties that were made by the individual states often encroached upon the federal authority or were in conflict with treaties made or wanted by the Confederation Congress.14 Federalizing the treaty power was, therefore, a high priority of the 1787 Convention in matters of trade, security, and diplomacy.15 Accordingly, the Constitution was written to make United States treaties the only valid treaties and to nullify all existing state-made treaties, regardless of any provision in the state constitutions or opinion of the state judges. Article VI makes federal treaties supreme over state-made treaties and conflicting state laws. Treaties do not supersede the Constitution and must in fact be made “in pursuance thereof” (Article VI, Paragraph 2). The Treaty Clause needs only to be understood and properly taught. No amendment is needed.
Limitations on Executive Orders
Since Article I, Section 1, clause 1 of the Constitution vests all legislative power in Congress, how could anyone think the President could legally make any laws under any title or pretext? Nothing in the Constitution authorizes “Executive Orders” or any other lawmaking excuse for the president. The fact that Congress quivers when the president violates his proper role does not mean anything is wrong with the Constitution. It simply means we should remember the president’s audacity, and the need for a little backbone in Congress, when we cast our votes in the next election. The Constitution cannot be amended to eliminate that which it does not allow.
Hey, this leaves the con-con men without one valid reason to mess with the Constitution! By any assessment, the above list of amendments for which the con-con men demand a second convention shows the utter absurdity (or worse) of their big, expensive, nationwide con-con campaign.
Not one of their proposed amendments could rein in an out of control federal government!
State legislators will be wise to examine these phony amendments, and then look into the manner by which such baseless proposals made their way into legislative language. They are worse than stupid because they appear as benign resolutions, but bring with them the potential of serious consequences for our country.
The Founding Fathers’ Refused to Call a Second Convention
The Framers faced numerous objections during the ratification process. The anti-federalists wanted, among other things, a Bill of Rights, a less powerful Senate, and a Congress with power to veto Supreme Court opinions. In order to add these and other features to the Constitution the ratifying conventions had urged the framers to call a second convention. In reply to that idea Alexander Hamilton said:
The reasons assigned in an excellent little pamphlet lately published in this city [New York] are unanswerable to show the utter improbability of assembling a new convention under circumstances in any degree so favorable to a happy issue in which the late convention met, deliberated, and concluded. 16
Deputy Charles Pinkney of South Carolina expressed similar concerns:
Nothing but confusion and contrariety could spring from the experiment. The states will never agree in their plans, and the deputies to a second convention coming together under the discordant impressions of their constituents, will never agree. Conventions are serious things and ought not to be repeated. 17 [Emphasis ours.]
James Madison vehemently opposed calling an Article V convention. In a letter to a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, George Lee Turberville, Madison wrote:
Having witnessed the difficulties and dangers experienced by the first Convention which assembled under every propitious circumstance, I should tremble for the result of a second…. 18
Does anyone believe Madison, Hamilton, or any of the Framers would see our day as a favorable time to call a convention? Or should we too “tremble for the result of a second?”
That Shaky Safety Valve
The con-con men are quick to assure state legislators that nothing can possibly go wrong because anything proposed in a convention must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. They ask:
Would 38 states ratify any bad amendments?
They already did! 19
They ratified the Fourteenth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Amendments, all of which shifted power to the central government at the expense of the states. All of these bad amendments were promoted by the White House and the press. We may be assured that our pernicious mass media could never pass up such a golden opportunity to promote radical social change.
The Convention of 1787 got around its ratification problem by changing the number from thirteen states to nine. If a new con-con proposes anything doubtful, they too could change the ratification rule from 38 states to 26 — or perhaps ratification by the governors, or by sanction of the President. One thing is certain: If the con-con produces harmful or unwanted changes, the opposing states will never have a chance to veto it.
They Tricked Us In 1933
When the time came to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment (prohibition), Congress and the liquor lobby knew that the southern Bible-belt states, and a few of the western states, would never ratify it. They were correct. The repeal amendment20 would never have been ratified if sent in the normal way to the state legislatures. How did they get around this? They resorted to the option of ratification by public conventions. In Utah, for example, they held a statewide vote on the issue. Then from this tally, 27 voters who favored repeal were selected for the ratifying convention and unanimously approved repeal. Amazing! This trickery cannot be over-emphasized, for clearly 97 percent of Utah’s citizens opposed the amendment, and yet the non-drinking Mormon state “ratified” the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal prohibition.
Beware. If an unwanted amendment or corruption of the Constitution came out of a second convention, does anyone believe the opposing state legislatures would ever see it? There is no way to prevent a modern convention from changing the ratification process, or even skipping it entirely. There is no security in the assurance that “38 states” will keep harmful alterations out of our Constitution in a modern constitutional convention.
When it’s all said and done, the big push for a con-con is fluff, falsehood, and bluster.
The most ingenious legal scholar is incapable of writing an amendment that grants more freedom than is guaranteed by a fully enforced U.S. Constitution.
Political and economic abuse will end — and the Constitution will be safe — when the American people get their brains and their bodies back to the ballot box.
1. Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Vol. II, p. 630.
2. Farrand, Vol. II, p. 476.
3. Quoted in The Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1992, p. B7.
4. From a letter written by Mr. Cuccinelli addressed to voters in the state of Virginia.
5. Farrand, Vol. I, p. 202.
6. The Federalist no. 43.
7. Stated by Mr. Black in testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, September 29, 1979.
8. The founding documents define term limits as “ineligibility for reappointment.”
9. The Federalist no. 72.
10. Farrand, Vol. II, p. 33.
11. Farrand, Vol. I, p. 423.
12. U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 2, Paragraph 2.
13. Definition of “welfare” found in Perry’s Royal Standard English Dictionary, Worcester, MA, 1788.
14. Farrand, Vol. I, p. 164.
15. Benjamin Franklin’s Plan of Union, America, Vol. 3, p. 47.
16. The Federalist no. 85.
17. Farrand, Vol. II, p. 632.
18. Rutland, R. ed. The Papers of James Madison, Vol. II, University of Virginia Press (1977), p. 330.
19. At that time three-fourths was 36 states.
20. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment.