Celebrating over 200 years of the United States Constitution
by Dr. Tony Simones, Director of Citizenship Education
Constitution Day is most certainly a day for celebration. It is also a day for us to consider the Constitution’s impact on our nation’s beginnings.
The Constitution was not our first system of government. After we won our independence, we created a governing structure known as the Articles of Confederation. This new structure didn't last long as it was inadequate to govern the new nation. Congress, the national lawmaking body, was weak, and there wasn’t really a president, not in the sense we know it today. There was no federal judiciary and all the power resided in the states with each state acting like its own small kingdom. There was no regard for how actions would impact the well-being of the country as a whole. We were fragmented and seemingly incapable of creating policies that would benefit us as a country. One historian even described our new nation as “The Disunited States.”
Because of this situation, the economy suffered. Many people became destitute, and businesses had no one to sell their products to. Where we once stood shoulder to shoulder and fought the British, Americans now fought their fellow citizens. Other countries watched and waited for us to fail.
It was a cataclysmic situation. Something had to be done.
It was agreed that a convention would be held in Philadelphia in 1787. The publicly stated justification for this convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation. However, the people who attended the convention knew no amount of revision would save it. They knew a new system of government would have to be created, that a new Constitution would need to be drafted. Thus, this became known as the Constitutional Convention.
Fifty-five delegates arrived from 12 states (Rhode Island was quite happy with their position under the Articles of Confederation and sent no one). The delegates were drawn from the elite (as one historian put it, they were “well-bred, well-read, and well-fed”). Among the key delegates was George Washington, who would preside and lend credibility to the group. Benjamin Franklin also brought an air of respectability to the proceedings. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had strong views about what the new government would look like, and they played significant roles.
Once the delegates arrived, it became clear that while they knew what they didn’t want, they also didn't know what would work. The delegates knew the Articles of Confederation, where all the power was held by the states, was not what they wanted. They also knew America’s citizens didn't want another king, where all the power was held by a single person. However, that left much room for disagreement and argument.
One conflict concerned the power each state would have in this new government. Not surprisingly, large states thought they should have more influence. Small states believed all states should be represented equally. The delegates were able to reach a compromise, in which one house of Congress, the House of Representatives, would reflect a state’s population and the other house, the Senate, would feature equal representation.
The question of representation brought about another conflict. Southern states sought to include enslaved people in counting a state’s population. Northern states objected, noting that enslaved people were treated as property, not people. A few delegates thought this new Constitution should forbid slavery. Others threatened to walk out if such a move were to be attempted. Once again, we reached a compromise. Enslaved people would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
Another conflict concerned the presidency. Some delegates opposed such a position, arguing the American people just fought a war to get out from under a king. Why would we want to create a new version? Other delegates pointed out that one of the main reasons the Articles of Confederation failed was the lack of a president. Then there was the question of how a president would be selected. Would it be by the people, or by Congress? Ultimately, it was decided that there would be a president, who would be elected by an Electoral College, which would be selected by state legislatures.
Ultimately, the Constitution they created was relatively brief.
- Article One dealt with the powers and qualifications of Congress. Unlike the situation under the Articles of Confederation, Congress would have the power necessary to govern.
- Article Two dealt with the powers and qualifications of the president, who would be chief executive of this new government.
- Article Three dealt with a Supreme Court and all other courts that Congress would create. There would now be a means of peacefully resolving disputes at the federal level.
- Article Four addressed the problem we had under the Articles of Confederation of states acting autonomously, with no regard for anyone else. This provision in the Constitution required states to give full faith and credit to the actions of other states.
- Article Five created a mechanism for amending the Constitution.
- Article Six established the supremacy of the Constitution over all conflicting state law.
- Article Seven created a process by which the Constitution would be approved.
Many are surprised by just how brief the original Constitution was. What about freedom of speech? What about protection against unreasonable searches and seizures? What about the right to vote? All of these would come in the form of amendments. They were not in the original Constitution. The Framers knew there wasn’t time to try and create a perfect document. They needed to get something drafted, approved, and put in place before the country collapsed.
While it was brilliant in many ways, it most certainly was not perfect. Slavery was acknowledged and permitted to continue to exist. There was even one provision about the return of enslaved people who had run away. Many look to these facts and criticize the Framers for not abolishing slavery. The simple and ugly reality is that many of the Framers owned people who were enslaved. Even the framers who were opposed to slavery were hesitant to address the issue in the Constitution.
Fortunately, the Framers allowed the Constitution to be amended. Through this process of amendment, it has become a more perfect document. Civil liberties were identified and protected. Slavery would be abolished through a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments extended the right to vote to former enslaved citizens, to women, and to 18-year-olds. The poll tax, a device used to disenfranchise Black citizens, was outlawed by a constitutional amendment.
The Framers should not be idolized as perfect or somehow superhuman. They were flawed, just like all humans, as was the document they created. At the same time, we should recognize them for seeing what needed to be done to preserve this new United States and taking the action to make that happen. Because of that courage, these flawed men saved this experiment of a democratic republic and allowed the story of America to be written.