Metaphorically Speaking: Metaphors and Similes during the Debate over Ratifying the Constitution

REDEUNT SATURNIA REGNA. It will rise (Massachusetts Centinel, 11 June 1788).

Metaphors and similes can be powerful rhetorical devices. What are they? A metaphor compares two unlike objects or ideas and illuminates them in a word or phrase that otherwise might be expressed in many words. In ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote that “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.” Likewise, similes also compare two unlike objects or ideas, but explicitly make the connection by using the words ‘as,’ ‘like,’ or ‘as if.

Rising Sun crest rail.

We all use metaphors and similes in our daily language although most of us are unaware of it. “To be the apple of someone’s eye,” “to sit in the catbird seat,” and “to have butterflies in one’s stomach” are common. Similes would include “to be as eager as a beaver,” “to be happy as a clam,” or “to be fresh as a daisy.” The genius of writers is to have the ability to use new and old metaphors and similes creatively and cleverly.

During the debate over ratifying the Constitution, both Federalists and Antifederalists often used metaphors and similes in their letters, essays, and speeches. Hyperbole was common. Elderly Connecticut Federalist Roger Sherman condemned Antifederalists for “all that sublimity of nonsense and alarm, that has been thundered against [the Constitution] in every shape of metaphoric terror” (“A Countryman” II, New Haven Gazette, 22 November 1787). In neighboring Rhode Island, a Federalist felt confident that his “countrymen have too much firmness to be frightened with bugbears, and more good sense than to be dazzled and captivated by a parade of diction, and the pomposity of metaphoric architecture” (Newport Herald, 20 November 1788, RCS:R.I., 434).

Phoenix rising from flames (New York Packet, 25 July 1788).

Antifederalists also advised readers to be wary of “the imagery of language, in the glowing colours of eloquence” that lead the “affrighted mind . . . to clasp the new constitution as the instrument of deliverance” (“Centinel” XI, Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, 16 January 1788), while an anonymous Philadelphia writer warned his friends to examine this Magna Charta with their own eyes, and not trust too much to the flow of rhetoric that may be expected.—Oratory can do wonderful things—one of the Athenian sages is reported to have made so moving a speech upon the miseries of human life, that more than half his audience rose from their benches, and went home with a determined resolution to hang themselves before night (Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 17 October 1787, CC:Vol. 1, p. 386).

The TWELFTH PILLAR OF THE FEDERAL EDEFICE ERECTED (Charleston City Gazette, 16 December 1789).

“A Friend to Common Sense,” an Antifederalist essayist in the highly partisan New York Journal, denounced a Federalist essayist saying that “A monkey has more unexceptionable claims to reason, than the ‘Examiner’ to eloquence or satire” (19 December 1787). Mud was even more widely flung when an Antifederalist compared Federalist poets to a Yahoo in Gulliver’s Travels, “whose delight was, after hiding himself among the branches of a tree, to surprise the unwary passenger with a discharge of his excrements” (Albany Gazette, 20 December 1787). Federalist Mathias Bartgis, a German-American printer of six newspapers in western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, was called “a muddle-headed, puddle-headed booby” (Maryland Journal, 22 July 1788); while Francis Bailey’s Philadelphia Antifederalist Freeman’s Journal was commonly referred to as “Bailey’s Chamber pot” (Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 December 1782). “Cinna,” a critic of the New York ratifying convention’s debates, disappointedly reported that the lengthy printed volume contained but two new metaphors—a clear indication that the speakers did not devote sufficient time and effort to their speeches. “I travelled through the field of political argument, observed a good and profitable soil, but very few flowers to amuse and regale the jaded spirits of the weary traveller. . . . The art of amusing and interesting the attention and admiration, by bold and apt metaphor, seems not to have been studied” (New York Journal, 22 January 1789, RCS:N.Y., 2494–95).

New Roof (Philadelphia Federal Gazette, 1 January 1789).

Both sides in the contest readily used metaphors and similes in describing the Constitution itself. Antifederalists referred to the Constitution as “an iron trap,” “a gilded pill,” “a Many-Headed Leviathan,” and “a Monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it”; while Federalists referred to the Constitution as the “Magna Carta of American liberty,” “the New Roof,” a “chef d’œuvre in politics,” and a “sacred temple of freedom.” A few newspaper printers actually illustrated architectural metaphors as federal pillars, arches, and domes.

The Center for the Study of the American Constitution has published a compilation of more than 1,000 metaphors and similes describing the Constitution during the ratification debate from 1787 through 1791 that have been compiled from the thirty-six published volumes and supplements of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Each individual metaphor or simile stands alone like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of a single beautiful flower, while the compilation blossoms like a bouquet of freshly cut flowers. The 311-page compilation entitled Metaphorically Speaking: The U.S. Constitution Described in Metaphors and Similes, 1787–1791 is available in paperback from the CSAC website bookstore (