Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Constitution of the United States of America


The Constitution of the United States of America

by James Madison and other delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 representing New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia

Most of us are familiar with the introduction, “We the People, of the United States, in order form a more perfect union …, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” With all 27 amendments, it is roughly 4500 words long and takes about one half hour to read, but have you ever taken the time? The first time I did, it was out of boredom; literally, there was nothing else to do and I was stuck in a waiting room. The second time, however, was because I had recently finished Founding Brothers , by Joseph J. Ellis, (ISBN 0-375-40544-5) which tells the dramatic story of how a roomful of thoughtful men, across a hot summer in Philadelphia, crafted one of the world’s most important and exemplary documents.

The story of the Constitution begins with the Declaration of Independence and ends with the building of the National Archives in Washington, DC. Once independence from England was achieved, the “several states” agreed to unite under the Articles of Confederation. This loose agreement inevitably led to the eruption of numerous problems which nearly doomed the fledgling nation. Inflation was out of control, the government was too weak to wage an effective war, and there was no process for resolving interstate trade disputes. The lack of a strong, central government meant that each state could operate without regard to its neighbors, and this led to bitter conflicts. Moreover, revolts within states began springing up, causing many to fear anarchy and chaos.

James Madison, a young philosopher and political theorist, devoted several years to the question of how to make the new nation work and determined that the Articles of Confederation must be replaced by a stronger agreement in which each state ceded some of its power to a central, or federal, government. This federal government would write and execute laws which would apply uniformly to every citizen of every state and would supersede any laws written by the states’ legislatures. He wrote, “Let it be tried then, whether any middle ground can be taken which will at once support a due supremacy of the national authority”. States’ powers would, he recommended, be “subordinately useful”. All he had to do was get the states to agree.

Madison and John Tyler, both of Virginia, opened the door for a constitutional convention by putting forward a proposal that the Continental Congress assume the power to regulate trade within the Confederation. This led to a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September of 1786, the outcome of which was a call, by Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to Congress to summon delegates from all states to assemble and revise the Articles of Confederation, and Congress complied. The objective, in the words of George Mason, was “…establishing a wise and just Government.”

Each state was invited to send delegates of their choosing to the meeting scheduled for May 14, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t until May 25th that a quorum was present, given the distances and difficulties involved in traveling at the time. In the end, the states appointed 74 delegates and of those, 55 participated. Rhode Island declined to be part of the convention due to suspicions of a conspiracy to overthrow the existing government which worked to that state’s advantage.

George Washington was ailing and suffering from personal problems which nearly kept him home, but at the last minute he decided to journey from Virginia to Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin, at 81 and ill with gout, was still active in business, science, and philosophy and took on the role of the “Sage of the Constitutional Convention.” Without these two venerable statesmen, it is hard to imagine a successful meeting, because other major figures from the Revolution were unavailable. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Jay were busy on foreign assignments. Others, including Patrick Henry, “smelt a rat” and boycotted the proceedings. They believed that their personal liberties, so hard won from the English, were at stake and wanted no part in the convention.

Once a quorum of seven states was obtained, discussion and debate about how to modify the Articles of Confederation began. Within a few weeks the delegates determined that the existing Articles could not be amended and should be replaced with a new form of government. At issue were questions such as regulation and taxation of slavery, fairness in representation of states of different sizes, and developing a central economy based on trade. These issues were divisive and seemingly irreconcilable, but the group’s leaders did a masterful job of crafting compromises which ultimately led to the government which we live under today.

In reading about the Constitutional Convention, it is clear how the effort could have fallen apart at almost any point. Tempers flared and accusations flew and yet, the group understood that they must not fail, for failure would communicate to Europe that the new nation was fragmented and weak. The most divisive and complicated issue – slavery – could not be resolved and so a compromise was reached: slaves would count as three fifths of a person for purposes of representation and federal regulation and taxation of slave traffic would be put off for 20 years. Abolitionists were unhappy with this compromise, but without it the constitution would not have been written. At the same time, there was tremendous tension between those who believed in a strong central government, the Federalists, and those who favored a smaller more narrowly focused central government. Finally, the question of protecting personal liberties had to be addressed.

Balancing the interests of small and large states required two legislative bodies: the House of Representatives based on census and the Senate by virtue of statehood. This creation helped the convention build the consensus required to design the new government. An Executive branch of the government would execute the laws passed by Congress and a Supreme Court would rule on constitutional questions. This brilliant triad with checks and balances is the reason why the United States of America has endured for more than two centuries.

In all it took the delegates to the Constitutional Convention fewer than 100 days to complete their work before copies were printed for distribution to each state where the people – not the state governments – would ratify it. During the ratification period, many amendments were offered by the states’ conventions. It was clear to the Federalists who were pushing ratification that the debating would continue for some time.

With nine states ratifying it, the Constitution became the law of the land on June 21, 1788. George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States on April 30, 1789, but it wasn’t until February 2, 1790, when the Supreme Court held is first session, that the new government became fully operational. Just the same, it was extremely fragile. Federalists and anti-Federalists fought bitterly about the need for guarantees of personal liberties. While the Federalists had been the winners in the debate over the new form of government, the anti-Federalists had the stronger argument concerning freedom. On October 2, 1789, President Washington sent to each of the newly united states a copy of the 12 constitutional amendments recently adopted by Congress. Two years later, 10 amendments – the Bill of Rights – were ratified by three-fourths of the states. A more perfect union had indeed been formed.

While the document itself is securely housed in the National Archives building, our Constitution’s safety is not guaranteed. We the People need to pay attention to how our government operates because if we don’t, our personal liberties can be taken away piece by piece and the legislative branch – which represents us – can become irrelevant. If that were to happen, what would stop the government from reverting to an oppressive regime such as the one we defeated in 1783?

By Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

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