Gavel Gamut

By Jim Redwine

(Week of 02 October 2017)


The Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1787. The delegates kept the proceedings secret to avoid, “licentious publications of their proceedings.” James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, stated that no Constitution would have ever been adopted if the debates had been public. Remarkably, for four months the secrecy was maintained.

Can you imagine the motives CNN, FOX and MSNBC would have projected upon George Washington, et. al.? No delegate would have escaped the allegations of lying or even treason to the Revolution.

But inside the Convention the fifty-five delegates, half of whom were lawyers, debated the most volatile issues of the day. Slavery, whether we would have one-man-one-vote or an electoral college, large states versus small states, foreign attachments, the establishment of courts, provision for national defense and many others. How did they do it?

Of course, I do not know. However, I am pretty sure no one was called a liar for stating his views and no one was ascribed venal motives. Most likely George Washington as the presiding officer of the Convention made sure each delegate had an opportunity to present his views and everyone else had an opportunity to respond.

Maybe it is because I am a judge and once practiced law but it seems likely to me the Constitutional Convention proceeded much as a court case. First an issue would be brought up, States’ Rights for example, then each delegate who wished to would state his position. Then, after extensive but civilized debate a vote would be taken.

This time honored approach to resolving controversies has served the legal system and America well for over two hundred years. First define the issues for resolution, a criminal trial for example, then allow each side to fully present their views without threats or name-calling.

I humbly suggest this same respectful approach will work in every conversation from government to individuals. Shouting down or using force to prevent those one disagrees with from speaking will not result in the kind of result we achieved in 1787.

As I was writing this column I received an email and an attachment from my friend Jerry Wade of New Harmony, Indiana who used to live in New York City and who still subscribes to the New York Times.

Jerry must have been really bored recently because he has obviously been following my columns about our country’s increasingly uncivil discourse. Jerry sent me an article by Bret Stephens that appeared as an opinion editorial in The Times. It contained an excellent analysis of the current climate surrounding “Freedom of Speech”, a.k.a., “If you don’t agree with me, you must be crazy!” I will share a small portion of Stephens’ article with you.

“We disagree about racial issues, bathroom policy, health care laws and, of course, the 45th president. We express our disagreements in radio and cable rants in ways that are increasingly virulent; street and campus protests that are increasingly violent; and personal conversations that are increasingly embittering.”

Stephens does suggest a solution:

“… [T]o disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.”

In other words, to have productive intellectual discourse we have to first concentrate on being civil.

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  1. I would like to add one overlooked factor to the list motivations during George Washington’s lifetime that no doubt played a roll in keeping one’s focus on being civil:

    “On Feb. 20, 1839, Congress passed legislation barring the practice of dueling in the District of Columbia.”

    That was some 52 years after the events you describe above.

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