Friday, April 1, 2016

The Creation of the Constitution of the United States of America

In school, we're never really forced to read the U.S. Constitution. We're told it's a beautiful document, and it's explained that it basically breaks down our three branches of government, but we're never expected to actually read the thing. It's like the Bible: you're supposed to understand the gist and have a few passages memorized, but reading it from cover to cover is only for scholars and masochists. And most of us are only familiar with the very beginning ("We the people..." and Genesis) and the earlier bits of the more popular second acts (the Bill of Rights and the gospel of the New Testament).

That said, I'd like to analyze the Constitution further. I studied constitutional law in college for a while, and I can confirm that it's an interesting piece of work.

But before I start reciting the preamble, I'd like to talk about how the document was created in the first place.

The Constitutional Convention met in 1787, just a few years after the Articles of Confederation had been ratified by the states (1781), and likewise just a few years after the American Revolutionary War came to a close with the Treaty of Paris (1783). Basically, a lot went on in the 1780s. It was a decade of self-discovery for our nation. The leaders of the day had to figure out what sort of country it would be.

The Constitutional Convention officially began on May 14, 1787, but getting around was rough back then. The convention wanted at least a majority (seven) of the states represented before the they really got down to business. That wasn't until May 25, with other state delegates trickling in slowly in the following weeks. New Hampshire delegates didn't show up until late July, and Rhode Island delegates never showed up at all. Also, two of New York's three delegates abandoned the convention in mid-July, thus giving up New York's vote in the proceedings. In the end, the Constitution was said to be written by "11 states and Colonel Hamilton," Hamilton being the New York delegate that stuck around.

Originally, the Constitutional Convention was only supposed to spruce up the Articles of Confederation, which only barely tied the states together. However, some delegates, particularly James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, came to the convention with the intention of starting from scratch to create a new government that would replace the Articles altogether.

Creating a republic is not easy. At the time, almost everyone had their own ideas for how the country should function. The Articles, for instance, mostly left the states to themselves and granted almost no power whatsoever to the national government, but that proved to be problematic on many levels, hence the convention.

Alexander Hamilton proposed the opposite: to eliminate individual states and create one single country, with a bilateral legislature and an executive that served for life. However, this plan was deemed "too British" and was scrapped.

James Madison came to the convention with a blueprint for a new government ready to go. This "Virginia Plan" was heavily debated, but the gist of it basically stuck: three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), with a bicameral legislature. Madison didn't include many details, and most of the ones he did were thrown out, such as his focus on having both houses of the legislature represented proportionate to state populations.

The Constitutional Convention debated for months. Should we have one executive, or three? One legislative body or two? Should they be proportionate to state populations, or static? When calculating populations, do you count slaves? And hey, what about slavery anyway: is that cool, or...?

The south disagreed with the north, big states disagreed with small states, and nationalists disagreed with anti-nationalists. As time went on, though, all these groups, forced together in small rooms, eventually found compromise: there would be one executive, with limited terms and a chance to be re-elected. There would be two legislative bodies: one with proportionate members, one with static members. Slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of determining a state's population for representation in the House of Representatives and, yes, slaves were acceptable... for the time being.

A draft was written, the details were debated again, then it was edited, debated, and re-edited, until finally everyone just wanted to go home. Even at the end, though, several delegates were clamoring for a Bill of Rights to amend the document and refused to sign it until they were assured one was forthcoming. (It came two years later.)

The creation of a document that forms the foundation of a country is not something to be taken lightly. Another country couldn't simply take ours and use it as their own, as the details of the document are specific to the concerns of our country. It's the result of countless compromises, and nobody left the convention entirely satisfied with the thing.

The Constitution of the United States is brilliant, but faulty. The founding fathers would likely laugh if they knew we referred to it with such reverence today. After all, they had no problems throwing out their previous governing document when it became a problem; that's how we got the Constitution in the first place. And, in the end, it was just the best they could come up with after four months of debate. It was just good enough so they could go home and get out of Philadelphia.

And, with just a few amendments here and there, it was good enough to hold our country together for over 200 years, and counting.

I'll leave you with this quote from a speech written by Benjamin Franklin at the end of the proceedings:
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.
Continue to Part 1: The Preamble


  1. Working my way back through these now. That's a bad-ass Franklin quote.

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