The Framers knew they had a hard sell on their hands. The idea of giving up full state sovereignty was anathema to the Revolutionary generation. Who wanted to give up power to an innovation like the Constitution, even with its federalism?
In order to make the sale, they needed to show that the states remained supreme. That, in the end, the states would have the power to control, diminish, or change the federal government. That power resides in Article V. It’s never been exercised. Is that because its exercise has never been called for? I don’t think so.
Part of the problem is psychological. The concept of sovereignty is poorly understood. Today we’re fat, dumb and happy, and we don’t have time to think about our rights as Americans.
The widely literate generation of the Revolution devoured political tracts. Thomas Paine counts as a Founding Father because he wrote two of them. Above all else, they wanted the preservation of their liberty.
So, how did it happen? Events. Here’s a random sample:
U. S, defaults on its French debts, and Congress finds it difficult to pay the Dutch loans. Ambassador to Britain John Adams tells Congress no commercial treaty with Great Britain is possible unless the states find a way to unite against discriminatory trade practices.
Six states issue their own paper currency. Congress is told only $2.4 million had been received from the states of the $15.6 requisitioned. Rhode Island issues paper money and makes it legal tender. When creditors refuse to accept it, the legislature passes a law establishing penalties for such refusal, and denies trial by jury for those prosecuted.
Shay’s Rebellion begins. Negotiations with Spain over navigation of the Mississippi have stalled. The Rhode Island legislature summons the Rhode Island Supreme Court to appear before a special session, and be accused of subverting legislative government.
Those are just a few highlights. And so, in one of the last few speeches reported in Madison’s Notes, Thomas Pinkney told the convention he was only signing “………apprehending the danger of a general confusion, and an ultimate decision by the sword….” There was a sense of desperation. They had to do something.
They really didn’t want to do it. But things just made them do it. But they didn’t give up their sovereignty. It’s still right there, in Article V.