The United States Constitution is arguably the most important legislative document ever written. It has not only shaped our great country, but also influenced many other democracies around the world. It is as important and relevant to us today as it was when it came into force on March 4, 1789.
The Constitution was created because of disappointment with the existing Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, essentially our first constitution, in force since Feb. 1, 1781. The Articles were flawed in that they did not provide enough authority for the Federal government to effectively govern the country.
The Articles did not empower Congress to raise an Army without the help of the states and they made foreign policy matters challenging. Most importantly, the Articles did not empower the Federal government to levy taxes. Instead, it was forced to rely on the states to positively respond to their requests for money.
The Confederation Congress, therefore, called a convention of state delegates to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787. Their stated goal was to fix the issues with the Articles of Confederation. They were not charged with creating a new Constitution. While some questioned the need to create a stronger Federal government, most of our Founding Fathers saw the necessity.
As James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” and if the government were run by angels “neither external nor internal controls would be necessary. In framing a government that is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
There was great debate regarding the authority that should be given to the central government.
Congress did not want to simply trade one despotic form of government for another. Additionally, the states did not want to relinquish their autonomy, especially regarding taxation. We must remember in 1787 most people living in our fledging republic were tied more to their state than the nation.
While the concept of nationhood was about a decade old, the reverence they had for their own state was a life-long feeling. Quite naturally, many looked to their state first.
The assemblage was a diverse group of men from different walks of life with various ideas and goals. While most were wealthy, that was not universally the case. There were merchants, lawyers, and owners of plantations. Some owned slaves, many did not. But they all wanted a better nation.
These leaders met from May 25, when a quorum of seven states was finally present, to Sept. 17, when the proposed Constitution was adopted by the convention. While several delegates were not completely satisfied with the final document, all 12 of the state delegations who attended (Rhode Island refused to send a delegation due to their mistrust of a strong central government) agreed to it.
From there, it was submitted to the Confederation Congress, then sitting in New York City. On Sept. 28, 1787, Congress unanimously approved sending the proposed Constitution to the 13 states for ratification.
On June 21, 1788, the Constitution had been ratified by the minimum nine states and Congress set March 4, 1789 as the date when it would go into effect. Our American form of government had been created.
SUGGESTED READING The most informative book on this subject is “The Federalist Papers,” written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1788.
This work, a series of 85 essays written in support of the new Constitution by those that wrote or influenced it, is considered by many to be among the greatest ever written.
PLACES TO VISIT If you get the chance, you must visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Entering the Hall where it all began in the summer of 1787, with Washington at the head of the room, surrounded by our Founding Fathers, cannot fail to choke you up.
WHY IT MATTERS So why should all this matter to us today?
Simply put, we would not have America were it not for our Constitution.
Our ability to worship as we please or speak out against policies with which we do not agree or choose our own representatives all stems from the visionary ideas our Founders put forth in the Constitution. Most of the blessings enjoyed by us, young and old, men and women, all races and creeds, flow from that document. For that reason alone, the Constitution should matter to all Americans. Next time, we will talk about the major issues debated at the Constitutional Convention. Until then, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus, former business owner and Ford Plantation resident. You can reach him at americanacorner@ gmail.com.