Peter Brimelow`s London Times Column “The 1787 Debate Warms Up”

[A dear friend just reminded me of this column, published in The Times of London, April 18 1987. It was written for a British audience, of course, but at a time when the umbilical connections between Britain and America were much less clear that they were after the publication of David Hackett Fischer`s Albion`s Seed and Jim Bennett`s The Anglosphere Challenge Hence my mournful comment: “As a professional exile, I am fascinated by the historical consequences of emigration. No one else seems to be. Typically, the mother country remains unaware of its overseas dimension and the host country never thinks to collate the facts.” One happy side effect: Mel Bradford, brutally mugged by emerging political realities in one of what turned out to be the seminal conflicts of the early Reagan years, called me to express delight that I had given his book publicity—he had been alerted to my column, in those pre-internet days, by Russell Kirk, who had read it while in residence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Tragically soon afterwards, Bradford died prematurely. Nearly two decades later, I think of that conversation with pleasure. The relevance of this column today is that, as a matter of historical fact, nations have an ethnic as well as a cultural component—i.e. America is not merely, or even mainly, a “Proposition Nation.”—P.B.]

NEW YORK—Americans adore public
celebrations. They are currently gearing up for a big
one: the

200th anniversary of their constitution
, which was
hammered out in a prolonged series of debates in
Philadelphia between

May and September 1787.

The constitution occupies a
peculiar position in American politics. It has been
constantly invoked, particularly in the last 30 years.
Judges have used it in support of

detailed administration


and other aspects of public life.

But it is not much studied in law
schools. Indeed, the fashionable judicial philosophy is
that the actual words of the constitution don`t really
matter anyway. What counts is the spirit, as interpreted
by judges.

This spirit has inspired judges to
by-pass recalcitrant legislatures and enact a

wide range of reforms
favored by political liberals.
For example, judges have even flirted with declaring the
death penalty

although there are
several specific endorsements of it in the
constitution`s text.

In response to this uninhibited

, the

Reagan administration
has made a systematic effort
to nominate judges who believe their role is to
determine and abide by the

constitution`s actual meaning.
But Congress, now
controlled by the Democrats, has to approve judicial
nominations. Bitter clashes are certain over the coming

My contribution to the celebration
has been to read

A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the
United States Constitution
by Professor

M. E. Bradford
of the University of Dallas.

Admittedly, my interest was partly
personal. As a

professional exile,
I am fascinated by the

consequences of emigration.
No one else seems to be.
Typically, the mother country remains unaware of its
overseas dimension and the

host country
never thinks to collate the facts.

Eight of the 55 delegates to the
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were born
outside America. The most famous, of course, was
Alexander Hamilton, later first Secretary of the
Treasury and leader of the Federalist Party. He came
from Nevis, in the West Indies, the son of an
Ayrshire man
and a French planter`s daughter, and
arrived in America as a student in his teens.


Robert Morris
, the

financier of the Revolution
and—at the time of the
Constitutional Convention—probably the wealthiest man in
the country, was also a teenage immigrant: born

near Liverpool
, where his father was a tobacco
merchant. And George Washington`s secretary during the
War of Independence,

James McHenry,
was an

Ulster Protestant
from Ballymena who had come to
America only shortly before.

Three of the others, from Ireland
and England, had been brought across the Atlantic as
children by their immigrant families. But James Wilson,
one of the Convention`s most brilliant figures, had been
24, a graduate of

St Andrews University
and a private tutor in his

, when in 1766 he chose to sail for the New
World and a new career in law that culminated in a
Supreme Court seat—and a reputation as one of the first
judicial activists.

I found the case of

Pierce Butler
particularly intriguing. The younger
son of an

Anglo-Irish baronet
and long-time MP, a descendant
of the Dukes of Ormond, Butler was 29 and a major in the
British army stationed in Canada when he married into
the South Carolina plantation aristocracy.

Resigning his commission, he was
instantly accepted as a leader of his adopted state. He
helped to organize its

against his former comrades-in-arms, lost
his fortune in the war and later regained it, and
eventually became a US senator and what Professor
Bradford admiringly calls “one of the forefathers of
the principal political tradition of the South”.

Among other things, this includes a distaste for
Northerners—and an absolute loathing of activist federal

Professor Bradford would argue that
these British immigrants fitted so easily into their
various places in the American political discourse
because it was merely an extension of their own

The American colonists were merely
claiming their rights as Britons, just as the British
themselves had done in the Civil War and the Glorious
Revolution. In an important sense, the American
Revolution was really a civil war, not a

at all. Ask Pierce Butler, his tenants
and slaves.

Above all, as many of the Framers
were later to say with horror, the American Revolution
had nothing in common with the egalitarian,
centralizing, authoritarian

French Revolution.

But the French Revolution
nevertheless has adherents here, in the shape of the
powerful American liberal movement. Their prolonged
struggle to make the former revolution over in the image
of the latter now centers on the federal courts,
regardless of what the Framers said—and, especially, of
what they wrote in the constitution whose anniversary is
currently being hailed with more than a little

Peter Brimelow is editor of

and author of the much-denounced

Alien Nation: Common Sense About America`s Immigration
(Random House –
1995) and

The Worm in the Apple
(HarperCollins – 2003)