Today is the 228th anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution. The Constitution was not ratified until almost a year later, but September 17th is “Constitution Day” , the federally recognized anniversary of the document that is the basis on which our nation has been built.
Until recently, I only had some pretty vague notions of the background of the writing of the US Constitution. A few years ago, I probably would have credited Thomas Jefferson (he was actually in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention) and I would have assumed that the US Constitution was created right on the heels of the American Revolution, with a universal idea that the new nation needed a new guiding document. I would have been wrong on both counts. And if you aren’t clear on the history of the Constitution, I’m going to attempt to give you the 30 second version.*
30-Second 5 Minute Version of the US Constitution’s History
During and immediately following the American Revolution, the United States of America looked to the Articles of Confederation as the basis of national government. The Articles of Confederation provided a very loose framework for a national government – purposely limiting power at the top in favor of state sovereignty. There were lots of good reasons for this approach, and it is certainly understandable for the colonies who were trying to get out from under the tyranny of the British to not want to create a strong, central government. The states themselves were also incredibly diverse, and didn’t necessarily think of themselves as “one nation” in a deep sense just yet.
During the Revolution, the inability to coordinate supplies, funding, volunteers… the inability to coordinate the war itself was one of the direct results of having a weak central government. Only the states could impose taxes or raise funds, and so a coordinated effort for money and manpower was virtually impossible. General Washington, particularly, felt this burden deeply and saw the need for a higher level of centralized power.
Ultimately, (most of) the states agreed and appointed men to attend the Constitutional Convention. Rhode Island, historically persnickety, declined to participate. (Thomas Jefferson, as previously noted, and John Adams were both in Europe at the time, and did not participate.) The men sent to the Constitutional Convention were charged with one goal – revise the Articles of Confederation. And as far as that goal goes, they failed. Or rather, they didn’t even bother to try.
Instead of revising the Articles of Confederation, the delegates started from scratch. Having unanimously selected George Washington as the president of the Convention, the delegates agreed to Washington’s demand that the proceedings be entirely secret and sealed. (I’m not sure that they happily agreed, but they did agree nonetheless.) No delegate was permitted to take notes or to talk about what was being said during the Convention. The idea was that by keeping all discussion behind closed doors, the delegates could be free to have genuinely open debate, without fear of reprisals or pressure from their home states or other interests. When they came to an agreement, they could present a united front on the final decision. It also served the purpose of allowing them to scrap the original goal of revising the Articles of Confederation in favor of pursuing a more sweeping change. As it turned out, James Madison took copious notes, which is how we know anything at all about what went on. Thanks, JM. (I find it hard to imagine that Washington didn’t notice; there is an amusing story about Washington finding a page of notes lying on the floor and flipping his lid. He wasn’t kidding about the no note-taking thing.)
And let’s be clear about the debate – there was a LOT of it. The delegates didn’t agree on anything. They didn’t even agree on whether they should be creating a new Constitution in the first place. Certainly many originally wanted to stick with the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation. And the debate was not all high brow and academic. There was name calling. There was sarcasm. There were fists on tables, loud voices, stomping feet and probably at least few times when one of the delegates flounced out of the room.
The 3/5ths compromise that made slaves count for just 3/5ths of a person? That was a Northern compromise, because the North didn’t want them to count at all. The South wanted them to be counted fully as part of the population. No one intended to allow black voters, of course, but counting them as part of the population gave the slaveholding states more representatives in Congress.
Another key compromise was also on the issue of representation. The Senate would have two representatives from each state, regardless of size, but the House of Representatives would be based on population. And any bills related to raising funds (ie taxes) would have to originate in the House.
The majority of delegates ultimately agreed that the US Constitution should be kept as short and simple as possible. The argument for a Bill of Rights, most vehemently waged by George Mason who ultimately refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked one, was countered with the argument that if the Constitution didn’t specifically give the federal government the right TO do something, then the federal government could NOT do that thing. In other words, there was not a need to specifically protect free speech, because the Constitution didn’t give the federal government any right to limit free speech. As it turns out, this would come back to bite them and a Bill of Rights would be added shortly after the Constitution was ratified.
The “Founding Fathers” (as people are so quick to call such a disparate group of individuals) did not have a common set of values. They didn’t even really have a common purpose, except for one of self-preservation. Some wanted very limited government. Some wanted a larger, more centralized federal government. Some wanted to abolish slavery within the first draft of the Constitution, and others wanted to make sure that slavery was protected within the Constitution. Standing armies, central banks, public education… these were all issues on which they just did not agree. They even argued about what to call the head of this new government. But they found the middle ground and they did the best they could.
228 years later, that end result still governs our nation. We still argue about it. Some of us want a stronger, centralized government. Some want small, limited government. Gun control, universal health care, banking regulation, marriage rights… there are a slew of issues on which we still just don’t agree. There are days when I feel overwhelmed with the differences in beliefs, frustrated that someone doesn’t see things my way. So I stomp my feet, raise my voice, pound my fist on the table – and I hope that I can live up to the expectations of those Founding Fathers by seeking out compromises and finding that middle ground.
* So I failed that that particularly objective.