The discussions that I hear about the constitution, the pending impeachment,and war powers, etc., indicate that people do not understand their constitution. It seemed appropriate to publish something that I posted five years ago. This gives a good review of how this great document came into being and what it really is.The teaching of history has become completely distorted;some of the current, cavalier discussions that I hear about the constitution seem totally uninformed and ill-advised.
It is May 25, 1787.
As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, you are entering the east room of the Pennsylvania State House. It is a hot and steamy day in Philadelphia. The Farmer’s Almanac says it’s going to be that way all summer.
Yes, if you signed the Declaration of Independence you’re back in the same room where you were eleven years ago.
The War is over. Now your job as a delegate is to move forward to create the kind of government you fought for.
We all must put ourselves in the hot, steamy, room with our Founders as they were doing the agonizing job of creating this great document. Would we realize that we were attempting to do something that had never been done before in human history? Could we be certain that our compromises would net us a document that guaranteed us self-government, freedom—all the freedoms that we cherish and fought for, all the freedoms rightfully ours from our Creator?
The first action of the delegates was to elect a President. George Washington was easily elected to the job. His popularity and respect had grown to such heights during the Revolutionary War, that many historians feel he could have become King. Thankfully,Washington just wanted to return toVirginia and resume a quiet life on his plantation.
At the time of the convention, no one outside of the convention knew what was happening. As they made the decisions about the rules, one of the first and most important decisions was secrecy. The delegates not only wanted to be free to speak their minds, but they did not want to cause alarm or opposition among the public. The members agreed to keep the proceedings secret until they finished their work. The members took the role of secrecy seriously; not one word about the convention was published in a newspaper during the proceedings.
There were fifty-five delegates from 12 states; Rhode Island boycotted the meeting. The Constitutional Convention was lacking some notables, men who were active in the Revolution. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were representing the new nation in Great Britain and France. Others missing who feared that a strong national government would weaken the rights of states were John Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry.
These were not ordinary men. They were sometimes called the “well read, the well fed, the well bred, and the well wed.” They were also quite young with an average age of 42. Benjamin Franklin, at age 81, was the oldest of the delegates. Most of the men had considerable political knowledge and experience. Many were lawyers.
When they met in 1787, they were not there to draft a New Constitution. They were there to modify the Articles of Confederation written in 1777 and ratified in 1781, the government that had been operating since the Revolutionary War. This goal was quickly discarded as the discussions centered around two competing concepts of government:
The Virginia Plan called for a strong national government with three branches—legislative to make laws; executive to execute the laws; and judicial to apply and interpret the laws. In the Virginia Plan, the population of the state would determine the number of delegates The larger states liked this idea.
The New Jersey Plan also called for three branches of government. The legislative branch, however, would have just one house with each state having equal delegates. The small states liked the idea because it gave them equal power.
Heated arguments continued for some time into July. Delegates were passionate about their arguments; they continually asked about the reason for forming the government. Is it for the states or is it for the people? It is important to remember that the delegates all came with considerable work in their own states on governing documents and policies. They were philosophically grounded and had experience in creating documents and policies that assured the freedom of the people. They came to this country to secure religious freedom. They wanted to make certain that the government they created would guarantee the rights of the people for them and future generations.
Finally a compromise was reached. Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed to keep two houses in the legislative branch. One would be the House of Representatives which would represent the people; the other, the Senate, would represent the states. Each state would have two legislators who would be elected by their state legislation. This has become know as the Connecticut or Great Compromise. This plan saved the convention.
This kept the members talking and working together. But the next great hurdle they faced was how the slaves would be counted in the representation. At this time, most of the slaves lived in the South. The unsavory debate about whether slaves were property or people occurred. Fortunately, the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence forced the white population to examine their thinking about slaves. The division in the country was noticeable. In order to keep the convention moving forward, Madison proposed a three-fifths compromise. Each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
The next major hurdle was how the chief executive should be elected. In spite of the delegates fear of “one executive,” they finally agreed to have one executive called the President. To limit the power of this person, they limited the term of service to four years. The manner of choosing this executive was equally vexing. Some wanted the Congress to appoint; others wanted the President elected by the people; others argued that the President should be elected by a carefully chosen group of people called the “electors.” The Electoral College was established. Each state has as many electors as members it sends to Congress. Changes have occurred in this system over the years.
The summer ended and the Constitution was finished, but the work was not yet over. The Constitution had to be ratified. The question of how many states were needed and what the process would be had to be settled. How many states were needed and who within the states would approve were the issues. Legislature ratification would be faster, but others argued that it needed to be voted on by the people. Finally it was decided that the Constitution would be ratified at special conventions by delegates chosen by the people in each state. Nine as the number of states needed to ratify was accepted
The Constitution was declared complete on September 17, 1787. A governing document was created like none that existed before nor has there been one like it since. These brave men had indeed created something very special, an enduring guarantee of freedom as long as we preserve the freedoms it guarantees. It is under attack in several areas; each one of us is a guardian. It was made for the benefit of the people; it must be preserved by those it serves. We did not become a great nation by accident. Next, we will explore the pieces of this great document that helped us become, “The Shining City on the Hill.”