In his 1870 work "No Treason" - Lysander Spooner writes:

“But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

During the drafting of the constitution, did any of the contributors anticipate the fact that the document might not prevent voters and/or politicians from ignoring, reinterpreting, or transforming it drastically?

Spooner was writing from the perspective of anarchism, and his critique can be applied to any government that claims to be "limited" or "self-limiting". I've read a good portion of The Federalist Papers, but have not encountered this position there, or in anything else I've read. Any recommended reading is appreciated.

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    No law, constitution or any other document can ever protect itself from being changed. If enough people want it to be changed, it will be changed, regardless of what it says. A mere document cannot impose tyranny. Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 13:58
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    You might also enjoy the anti-federalist papers, which are more likely than the federalist papers to have what you are looking for. You will find some fascinating predictions of where the constitution would fail. Some of those predictions came true, some did not. Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 16:57
  • @DavidRicherby - agreed. I find it interesting that the attempt was made given this seemingly obvious fact.
    – blud
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 5:52
  • @JacobIRR The point is that as long as a substantial majority of the people and government are law-abiding, changing the constitution requires a large consensus. And if it's not true that a large majority of the people and government are law-abiding, all the bets are off anyway. Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 11:56

4 Answers 4


Benjamin Franklin seems to have anticipated Spooner's argument. When asked what he and his associates had created, Franklin replied,

A republic, madam, if you can keep it.

The point being that in the final analysis, a constitution (or any law) is just a piece of paper, entirely dependent on the government's willingness to obey its own laws, and the willingness of the people to do something if the government is not willing.

Quoted here, referring to Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1787, The American Historical Review, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Apr., 1906), p 618.

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    +1, and might also add John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
    – Meir
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 13:33
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    @Meir Questionable statement regarding regarding "religious people" as the only one fit to to govern, but hey, this goes to show that morality changes with time and no piece of paper can be expected to stand there forever without modifications.
    – Ant
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 17:14
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    @Ant Reread the statement. It's not about who's fit to govern, but about the people - the common citizenry.
    – Meir
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 17:31
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    @Meir Well, same thing though right? Today no one thinks that only religious people can be good citizens :)
    – Ant
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 17:36
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    @Ant I wouldn't say that no one thinks that. But the ones who do tend to be very religious... Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 18:17

To answer this question, you have to understand the global political climate at the time the Constitution was created and ratified: Tyrants were the norm.

The Patriots had just fought a bloody war to free themselves from what they saw as the arbitrary Tyranny of the British government.

The British parliament at that time was subject to a King's veto (not just symbolic as it is now), and the House of Commons was subservient to the upper House of Lords (essentially an unelected Senate comprised of very wealthy noblemen).

From the Common Sense pamphlet written by Tomas Paine in 1776 (one of the most influential documents in promoting the Revolution):

How came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision,which the constitution makes, supposes such a power to exist.

All of the countries in Europe were ruled by some form of Monarchy, which the Founding Fathers saw as tyranny.

With this context in mind, now look back to the Constitution. The main function of the Constitution was to create a government which would be the least susceptible to corruption and tyranny.

If any men in history were ever skeptical of the corruption of a government, it was the Founding Fathers. Of course they anticipated that there would be unjust and corrupt leaders, they would have fully expected it.

Of course they realized that men in the future would try to twist the meaning of the Constitution. They just hoped that future generations, and the system of checks and balances, would be strong enough to face those challenges


They certainly DID anticipate this. They even built in a corrective, which is slowly being activated today, although it takes time.

What am I talking about? One phrase in Article V of the US Constitution, which I've highlighted:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states...

IMPORTANT: this is NOT about a "second constitutional convention." It is NOT about "rewriting the constitution." There are many scare-mongers out there. It is simply this: - A way to propose amendments to the Constitution that bypasses Congress. - ALL such amendments still would have to be voted on and passed by the states!

Pretty obvious in reality: Congress will never ever propose amendments that limit its own power.

Hamilton, in the final Federalist Paper (#85), discusses this:

By the fifth article of the plan, the Congress will be obliged 'on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the States (which at present amount to nine), to call a convention for proposing amendments, which shall be valid, to all intents and purposes, as part of the Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the States, or by conventions in three fourths thereof.' The words of this article are peremptory. The Congress 'shall call a convention.' Nothing in this particular is left to the discretion of that body.

George Mason is generally acknowledged as the one who was most concerned about legislative tyranny. I've not yet found an exact quote from him.

See conventionofstates.com for the current main effort.

  • I was considering posting a question, but I think you've answered it here. So would this be an example of a "scare-monger" site? States could not control CC. They claimed that the convention could do basically anything, but I couldn't see how - based on Article V, anything the convention did, would still have to pass 3/4 of the legislatures. Nor could the state convention remove that requirement on itself (at least in that convention).
    – John C
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 17:50
  • @John C, correct.
    – MrPete
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 0:34

While I haven't read them (although I do have a copy) the Anti-Federalists papers would be those most likely to point out government "creep". And maybe even some of the pro-ratification side were aware, but thought it a necessary sacrifice because the Articles of Confederation failed horribly at uniting the states outside of war, and a new formula of government was all that could keep the states from going their own way.

(One delegate, I believe Elbridge Gerry from Connecticut - from whom we get "gerrymander" by the way - is reported to have said his state might have to seek "outside alliances" (which probably meant Britain) if the convention failed).

Most were also alive in 1793 to see the outcome of the Supreme Court case Chisolm v Georgia, which circumscribed the use of state sovereign immunity in federal courts. It doesn't seem likely to have been "part of the plan" for the federal government, because the 11th Amendment which nullified the decision, was sent to the states in the next session of Congress, and ratified by 1795.

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