It was one big mess. From such lofty aspirations and grand beginnings it had sadly come to this: states circulated a dozen different currencies, most of which had little value; neighboring states taxed each other’s goods and state legislatures refused to pay the ballooning debts they had incurred during the eight-year Revolutionary War. Worst of all, citizens began taking matters in their own hands by taking up arms against duly authorized governmental bodies. This was no less than insurrection and the fragile union of states trembled at the prospect of dissolution just three years after the Peace Treaty of Paris secured their separation from Great Britain as an independent nation.
Massachusetts, the cradle of liberty, was drowning in debt as thousands of family farmers struggled to survive. Their debt-ridden status led to angry public meetings. Soon a violent, torch-lit mob marched on the state government. Daniel Shays, a captain in the Continental Army during the Revolution and an impeccable patriot, led the revolt. State militia put the rebellion down but the ferment of ideological and social strife simmered amid a combustible brew of violence and lawlessness.
America was coming apart at the seams; its ship of state had sprung multiple leaks even before it had voyaged out of its own harbor. Of course, things had never been very stable to begin with. It was one thing to win independence, another matter entirely to crystallize nationhood among 13 fledgling states. The “Articles of Confederation,” was the young nation’s first attempt to fuse political union but its language crackled with fears of centralized government. The upshot was that the “Articles,” in effect, made Americans citizens of their states first and the United States second. No less a luminary than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, called Virginia his country.
In 1787, Americans thought of being American in much the same way the people of Europe thought of themselves as Europeans. They are Europeans yes, but they are first English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. Moreover, without the power to tax, raise an army or regulate commerce, Congress was hostage to the sovereignty of individual states. One could hear the creaks of the United States fragmenting into disunity.
The crisis was catalytic; 55 delegates from every state except Rhode Island gathered at Philadelphia to see if they could suture a bleeding nation. Those representatives constituted an extraordinary constellation of erudition and practical experience: 39 of them had served in Congress, 21 had fought in the Revolutionary War, eight signed the Declaration of Independence, seven had been Chief Executive of their states and eight had helped frame their state constitution. Thomas Jefferson called them an “Assembly of demigods” even though he and John Adams were overseas on diplomatic missions and did not participate in the Constitutional Convention.
Some 16 weeks and 8,000 words later, our Constitution, the most enduring and workable document in the annals of self-government had been crafted. Its parchment set forth the nation’s fundamental laws, established the form and operation of our national government and defined the rights and liberties of the American people. A century later English Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, proclaimed it, “The most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of men.”
Federalism, separation of powers and checks and balances are all the offspring of the miracle that was wrought in Philadelphia. The Founders even provided the process of amendment for those events they could not foresee. As James Madison noted, “In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”
This was all breathtakingly original in 1787 and this August document is still, nearly 225 years later, refreshingly contemporary and accessible. In his book, The Citizen’s Constitution, Seth Lipsky was fascinated with how many constitutional issues centered on the ordinary person. Whether it is, said Lipsky, a boat owner seeking the right to oyster in the beds of New Jersey, a foreign diplomat trying to prevent his American wife from winning a divorce, the right to privacy, the question of habeas corpus or a retired security guard wanting to keep his pistol at home, ordinary folks and legal scholars alike look for answers in a document that was written, for the most part, 10 generations ago.
Perhaps this is because the Constitution has always been about us, the people; the two are indivisible. It is supremely fitting that its Preamble begins with the words, “We the people.” For even after the founders ordained the document it did more than just promise popular government; it enacted it with democratically elected ratifying conventions held in all 13 states. The people of these states had to give their consent to the Constitution; before that it was a mere proposal. States waived voting restrictions including property qualifications and allowed a wide swath of citizens to vote for convention delegates. Today this does not impress, but by the standards of the time it was an extraordinarily extensive and inclusive ratification process. Democratic self-government, after all, did not exist anywhere in the world and the only time it had existed in the ancient world was in Athens and then only on a small scale. Indeed, even the Athenians did not vote on a written Constitution.
Moreover, the fight over ratification was fast and furious. The opposition, the Anti-Federalists, was well organized, relevant and brilliant. It included James Monroe, who 30 years later would become the fifth President of the United States and Patrick Henry, the tongue of the Revolution. In a golden age of oratory, Patrick Henry (“He spoke as Homer wrote,” said an awed Thomas Jefferson) thundered his objections throughout the land. “Who,” he would ask, “authorized them to speak the language of We, the people, instead of We, the States. States are the characteristics and the soul of confederation.”
The proponents fought back just as vigorously in the court of public opinion with a great number of pamphlets, articles and broadsides, all strikingly illuminating, on why the Constitution must be ratified. The most famous of these were the Federalist Papers where the authors, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay using the pen name, Publius, combined their stratospheric IQs to make the case for ratification in New York.
The vote in favor of ratification just squeaked by in New York and New Hampshire. North Carolina and Rhode Island initially refused to ratify it and, consequently, when George Washington was sworn in as the nation’s first president, there were only 11, not 13 states in the Union. From that shaky start, however, the Constitution has established deep political, social and cultural roots in the American soil. However, it didn’t solve all our problems. The institution of slavery proved too steep a barrier even for the Constitution (when it was ratified, the Bill of Rights applied only to Congress, not the states) and only after the Civil War and the 14th Amendment was the process of applying it to the states accepted.
Nevertheless, the Constitution was the wellspring for what has become the most free, dynamic and productive society in the annals of human memory.
What was achieved was best said by old, wise, Ben Franklin when he tottered out of the Convention and was approached by an inquisitive woman. The man who was said to have seized lightning from the skies and scepters from kings was now past 80 and ailing. The woman, within the earshot of many, asked, “Dr. Franklin what have you men given us in there?” “A Republic madam, if you can keep it,” answered Franklin.
From where I write is a framed painting I own of Howard Chandler Christy’s “Signing of the Constitution.” It’s a favorite of mine; one I think should be hung in a prominent place in every school in America. It depicts the dramatic moment where assent is being given to the Ordaining of the Constitution. Most of the delegates in the painting are looking straight ahead at Washington; a few look outward toward us. None, however, stares through this dim mirror of history at us more conspicuously than Ben Franklin: His eyes are piercing; his long white hair luxuriantly flows over his shoulders, his spectacles loosely clasped in the half-fist of his hand and though his lips are parsed tightly together, you know what he is thinking. It’s obvious, it’s his challenge to every generation of Americans: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”