Constitution Day is quickly approaching once again. Several years ago, Congress passed legislation which required certain entities receiving federal funds to celebrate Constitution Day each year. I am usually in charge of coming up with some way to honor the Constitution at my work.
I have to admit that Constitution Day is one of my favorite days of the year – probably second only to Christmas. Although a federal holiday, no businesses are required to close. Constitution Day has been established as a way to educate citizens about our Constitution.
Our Constitution is the shortest Constitution in the world. At only 4,400 words encompassed in seven articles, it is also the longest-lived Constitution in the world. When I think about the events that surrounded the creation of our Constitution, I try to put myself back into the framework and the mindset of that day and age.
The Constitutional Convention – also known as the Philadelphia Convention – began 11 days late on May 25, 1787, in Philadelphia. Travel to Philadelphia was difficult and the original starting date of May 14th came and went without a quorum of colonies represented.
The roads were dust-covered with carriages kicking up particles in the air. As the delegates dismounted from their horses or descended the narrow steps of their carriages to enter the Hall, passersby watched and wondered what was occurring within the old brick walls of Independence Hall. The proceedings were to be held in secret – the representatives could not afford to have word spread before they had completed their important work. All were sworn to secrecy, and guards were stationed at the doorways to prevent curious colonists from peering into the hall where the historical debates were taking place.
Many of the delegates arrived with the understanding that they were to work on “fixing” the Articles of Confederation, the loosely drawn agreement that had held the colonies together since their independence from England. But James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and a number of others had different ideas. Fixing the Articles of Confederation was an option, but not what they really sought to do.
Theirs was a dream of creating a new country: a banding together of the 13 colonies in unity to protect the colonists against their enemies – both from without and from within. But only 12 colonies participated in the convention. Rhode Island refused to send anyone to represent her interests, and, after the Constitution was signed and sent out for ratification, it was the last state to do so.
But agreements come with a price, and our Constitution was no different. Slavery threatened to tear apart the negotiations unless some sort of compromise was reached. The slavery issue involved two separate issues: one was how to count slaves for the purpose of representation in Congress, and the other was how to end the slave trade.
The first issue – that of representation – was resolved with the Three-Fifths Compromise. The Compromise allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a white person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress.
The second issue – that of the slave trade – was resolved by inserting a provision that prevented Congress from banning the slave trade for 20 years – until 1808. With the contentious issue of slavery quelled for the time being, the remainder of the compromises were converted into a draft in July 1787.
On September 17, 1787, the draft was submitted to the members of the Convention for signing. Of the 55 representatives attending, 39 signed the document. The oldest representative to sign, Benjamin Franklin, was 81 years old. So frail was he at the conclusion of the Convention that he had to be helped – tears streaming down his face – to the platform to sign his name.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
His words are worth reading:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve 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. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right — Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.”
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administred.
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
The Constitution was ratified in 1788, and the Bill of Rights – important guarantees urged in exchange for support – was added in 1791.
Our Constitution is a document which has endured for over 200 years ago. But we cannot lock that document – the blueprint for our Nation – in the cement of 1787. It must be a “living” document – one capable of adjusting to changing times and one which provides us with a tool to become a Nation of which our Founding Fathers could only dream.