John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a CBS senior national correspondent and Chief Political Analyst. He is also a Contributing Writer to The Atlantic and is co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Being allowed to change your mind in politics

I am a devotee of Clinton Rossiter’s enthusiastic view that the Constitutional Convention is one of the greatest deliberative moments in world history. “There has been no greater happening in American history,” he writes, “there have not been many greater, certainly of a political nature in the history of the world.” President John Adams thought so too, calling it “the greatest exertion of human understanding , the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.”

One possible reason the men were able to achieve so much during that hot month in Philadelphia in 1787: they were allowed to change their minds. The deliberations were the exact opposite of what we have today, which is a situation of intellectual snuffing out. When a lawmaker lifts an eyebrow toward possibly embracing a notion, the hot take jockeys hound them (look at the eyebrow!) and they are defined until they have to answer to St. Peter.

The rules of the Convention were set up to accommodate broad thinking (with the exception of the fact that not a lot of anti-federalists were invited). Votes were not recorded so members could change their mind and not feel embarrassed or have to explain themselves. Also, no record of the proceedings was printed and secrecy was maintained throughout (with just one slip).

Madison did keep notes, but he only published them after the last of the 55 min in attendance died (which turned out to be Madison himself).

Here’s one typical passage from John Rutlidge, the governor of South Carolina:

“Mr. RUTLIDGE animadverted on the shyness of gentlemen on this and other subjects. He said it looked as if they supposed themselves precluded by having frankly disclosed their opinions from afterwards changing them, which he did not take to be at all the case.”

Rutlidge is encouraging them to be open with their opinions because they can change them later. Rutlidge was an interesting fellow. He would later become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who then flamed out when Washington tried to make him Chief Justice. Why? He spoke out too forcefully against the Jay Treaty and the Federalists (led by Hamilton) set on him like a pack of animals that set on things quickly and unrelentingly.

So…Rutlidge helps the Constitutional Convention along by encouraging delegates to speak freely. Don’t worry, you can change your mind. You won’t be branded for life. But then in public life, his strong view on a political matter was judged as out of bounds for a jurist. This ends up being his undoing. (So it isn’t all Twitter’s fault that we’re only allowed to have the approved thoughts at the approved moments said in the precisely correct way. People were being hounded into fleeing in the 18th century too.)

When Rutlidge was denied the post it reportedly caused a decline in his mental health. (This is Alanis ironic, because in the first Borking in U.S. history, his critics (including Hamilton) said he shouldn’t be allowed to hold the Chief Justice spot because he was crazy. (There was no evidence he was, I don’t think). He ultimately tried to kill himself by tossing his mortal frame off a bridge. Want another John Rutlidge coincidence? He was a slave owner and was rescued from this suicide attempt by two slaves.

(Alternate view: Secrecy was maintained so that moneyed elites could keep out opinions they didn’t like. Pro-business founders wanted an orderly national government to make commerce easier. Southern interests benefited from secrecy because it allowed them to win concessions on slavery that northern states might not have tolerated. Rebuttal: the plan went through a ratification process so it wasn’t like the secrecy locked in what the men agreed to without giving a broader say to officials beyond the men in Philadelphia).

(Obviously this was written by someone with other writing to do).

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