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An English Rose in Georgia: A brief history of constitutions old, ‘new’
Lesley Francis new
Lesley Francis.

I never comment about political opinions or how I vote, but with all the campaigning running up to the midterm elections, my mind has been on our democracy both here and in the land of my birth. I was proud to achieve American citizenship six years ago and since that time I participate fully in exercising my right to vote - as I always did in the U.K.

Although both my countries are democracies, there are many differences between the two governments, which is understandable since one goes back a thousand years and one is a mere 230 years old. The American Constitution was written in 1788, 12 years after that fateful day on July 4, 1776, when the patriots declared their independence and rejected the injustices of the British king.

I often wonder what would have happened had King George III backed down and made compromises rather than disowning the Americans as rebels and treating them accordingly. I doubt anybody could have foreseen what a vital moment in history that proved to be, not only for North America but also for Britain herself and eventually the entire world.

Fast forward over 200 years and we all know that the much-admired American Constitution has been used as a model for setting out the structure of government and its relationship with its citizens in modern states around the world.

What is so special about our Constitution? There are lots of views on the subject, but to me it comes down to three points. These reflect the strong feelings of the founding fathers and their reaction to what they saw as the tyranny of the British Monarchy:

• The government gets its power from the people, not the other way around.

• It limits the power of the government.

• It establishes a system of checks and balances over the government to prevent abuse.

These were really unique and profound concepts in the mid-1700s, but history has shown just how magnificent they are.

The Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, with a quorum of seven states to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation. Eventually, all states but Rhode Island were represented.

It took 100 days to “frame” the Constitution but the word “democracy” does not appear in it once. The Constitution has 4,440 words and a few spelling errors, including “Pennsylvania.” We celebrate Constitution Day on Sept. 17, the anniversary of the day the framers signed the document.

The youngest person to sign the Constitution was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, a 26-year-old lawyer, politician and ex-soldier who had served with George Washington at Valley Forge. The oldest to sign was the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who was in such poor health from the pain of gout and a stone in his bladder, that he is reported to have been carried to the convention hall in a sedan chair by prisoners from the local jail. Supposedly, he needed help to make his signature as tears streamed down his face.

Most of the founding fathers were actually at the Constitutional Convention where the document was hammered out and ratified. But some, such as Thomas Jefferson, who was in France as ambassador at the time, made significant contributions to its content by letter.

Despite his profound impact on the document, Jefferson was not able to join the debates in person or sign the final document. You can learn more at www.constitutionus.com. Moving to the other side of the Atlantic, you may not be aware that the U.K., along with Israel and New Zealand, is one of the few democracies that does not have a formal written constitution. Of course, the British have ancient legal documents still in effect but no single written document.

Instead, the British have an “uncodified” constitution comprising a host of diverse laws, practices and conventions that have evolved over a long period of time and generally accepted to be binding.

Most of these developed out of historic English law, since many of its founding principles and essential laws go back to charters and bills that were drawn up by the English parliament long before the creation of the United Kingdom.

The first and most famous of these documents was the Magna Carta - a charter of English liberties granted by King John on June 15, 1215, when he was threatened by civil war. Early in our marriage, my husband and I lived very close to the historic site of Runnymede, a famous field near Windsor where King John was famously pressured into signing the Magna Carta by his noble men.

The Magna Carta declared the sovereign (the king or queen) was subject to the rule of law, a very radical idea for the time, and also documented liberties held by “free men,” which at that time was only privileged male landowners.

This 803-year-old document is often considered to provide the foundation for individual rights in Anglo-American legal systems. There is a lot more about the Magna Carta at www.about-britain.com/institutions/constitution.

I say goodbye this week with a quote from the first American president, George Washington: “The Constitution is a guide, which I never will abandon.”

God bless America and democracy!

Lesley grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

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