Monday, September 17th, is Constitution Day. This year is the 220th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution – at 4,440 words, it is the oldest and the shortest written constitution of any major government in the world.
The Constitutional Convention convened on May 25, 1787, in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Freshly spread dirt covered the cobblestone street in front of the building, protecting the men inside from the sound of passing carriages and carts. Guards stood at the entrances to ensure that the curious were kept at a distance. The proceedings were held in secret.
James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” arrived first in Philadelphia for the Convention. Arriving in February, three months before the Convention began, he brought with him the blueprint for the new Constitution.
Seventy individuals had been chosen to attend the meetings with the initial purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation, the document which up to that point had loosely held the colonies together. Rhode Island was the only colony which chose not to send a delegate to the meeting. Fifty-five men attended most of the meetings, but only thirty-nine delegates actually signed the Constitution.
“I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve of them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”
Frail, in poor health, and barely able to walk, he needed help to sign his name to the document, and, as he did so, tears streamed down his face. Great debates would rage for the next few months as those who supported the new government argued for its acceptance and ratification while those opposed would argue just as fervently against its implementation.
By late June of 1788, the debate was over; the required number of states had ratified the Constitution, and the “Great Experiment” had begun.
Our Constitution is composed of three parts: The Preamble, the Body consisting of seven Articles, and the 27 Amendments.
The first part is the Preamble. The Preamble is much like a vision statement of a business: It contains the goals of the Founding Fathers for the new Nation. The Preamble reads as follows:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The second part is the body. The body contains the seven articles passed to help govern the new Nation. Those Articles are:
Article I – Sets out the powers of the legislature and the requirements to be a representative or a senator. Each state has two senators and a number of representatives based on population. The number of a state’s representatives is adjusted every 10 years based on the census. Population shifts can either add to the number or subtract from the number. The number of senators remains the same – only two.
Section 8 of Article I contains the powers given to Congress to govern the country. It sets out such powers as laying and collecting taxes, regulating commerce among the several states, coining money, declaring war, etc.
Article II – Sets out the powers of the executive and the requirements to be the president. Originally, no term limits were imposed, but, until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected for a third term and then a fourth, no person had been elected more than twice. To ensure that no person held office for too long, the 22nd Amendment was proposed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. It was ratified by the required 3/4 of the states on February 27, 1951.
Article III – Sets out the powers of the judiciary, its jurisdiction, and the requirements to be a federal judge. The Supreme Court was the only court actually established by the Constitution. The Founding Fathers gave Congress the power to establish inferior Courts as it saw fit from time to time.
Article IV – Establishes the principle of “Full Faith and Credit.” This principle was meant to create a level playing field among the states by requiring that each state recognize its sister state’s inherent ability to govern by giving “full faith and credit” to the public Acts, Records, and judicial proceedings of every other State.”
Article V – Establishes the process for amending the Constitution when necessary. The bar to amend was set fairly high – 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures – to prevent the amending process from becoming too easy to navigate.
Article VI – Establishes the Constitution and the Laws of the United States as the Supreme Law of the Land. When conflicts occur between a state and the federal government, the federal government controls.
Article VI also provides that all debts would be assumed by the federal government. This Article insured that any debts incurred by the national government under the Articles of Confederation would be honored under the Constitution. These Revolutionary War debts were considerable. In addition, many individual states still owed substantial sums for war expenses.
Article VII – Provides the process by which the Constitution would become binding on the states. The ratification of 3/4 of the colonies’ legislatures was required to ratify the new Constitution.
The third part is the amendments. The Constitution has been ramended 27 times. Ten of those amendments were added during the meeting of the first Congress in 1789 with ratification in 1791. The first ten amendments are known collectively as the “Bill of Rights” and were added to allay fears that the new government would take away rights cherished by the colonists – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc.
The topics of the additional 17 amendments range from providing the vote to women, 18-year olds, and minorities; abolishing slavery; changing the method of electing senators, etc.
As George Washington stated, “its only keepers, the people.” As a Nation, we must know how our Constitution was born and what our Constitution says in order to be “keepers”. Many would like to think it is a document set in stone and the words have no life – their philosophy is that what the Constitution said in 1787 on the day of its signing is what it should mean today.
But the Founding Fathers probably realized they could not possibly provide for every contingency and that future generations would see the world in a different way, tailoring the Constitution through interpretations and amendments to meet the needs of the very posterity that they spoke of in the Preamble.
While all of us have busy lives, take a moment on Monday to think, just think, about the feat that was accomplished at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, that September 17th, 220 years ago. Think of the 39 who dared to sign the document, setting the country on an uncharted course. Think of the heated political debates that took place as those who signed returned home to convince their fellow citizens that this was the right thing to do. Think of the courage those at the Constitutional Convention displayed. And, finally, think about this – our Founding Fathers were not perfect; they had their flaws, and they were the wealthy and propertied of the colonies. They did not represent the majority of the colonists. The Founding Fathers were the elite of the times worried about retaining their status and power.
But, regardless of their status and wealth, they gave us a document that is ours now.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Her statement could read, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed keepers can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Constitution is not set in stone; it is a living, breathing document.
We are the Keepers, and Constitution Day is the day we should remember that and commit to our power to change not only our society but also our world for the better.