Constitution Day – A Reflection on its Anniversary
September 17, 2016, marks the two hundred and twenty-ninth anniversary of the final day of the U.S. Constitutional Convention—the day a miracle occurred on Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street and a gathering of men set aside their differences and placed the promise of a free and united nation above all else.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States ~ Howard Chandler Christy ~ Public Domain
An Embarrassment of National Affairs
The Declaration of Independence was little more than ten years past by 1787, and the fledgling United States of America was fast dissolving into bitter political factions. There wasn’t a national military force to secure trade routes necessary to her survival, there wasn’t a national currency to facilitate trade between her states, and there wasn’t a glimmer of compromise on the virulent issue of representation between the large states and the small states. A convention was proposed to address the embarrassment of the nation’s affairs.
Though most thought the nation too dear to lose, there was no certainty the proposed convention would convene—an earlier attempt at a conference for a similar purpose had been unsuccessful. It took the bloodshed on a Massachusetts field to turn the tide.
In 1786, rebels in the northern states, most of them farmers led by Massachusettsan Daniel Shays, rose in protest against increasingly high taxes. Once again, less than ten years after the Revolutionary War, it looked as if neighbors would be slaughtering neighbors.
Though the state militia squelched the rebellion within months, it alarmed the country’s leaders when the thirteen states refused to fund federal troops to resist the rebels.
If there was to be a strong national government, it was imperative the Articles of Confederation be adjusted. If they weren’t, not many held hope for the new nation to survive.
A Code of Silence
The convention was scheduled to start May 14th in Philadelphia, but a quorum wasn’t attained until May 25th. Once it was reached, adopting a code of silence was among the first decisions of the delegates. There would be no discussion of the proceedings outside the State House. No sound bites, no interviews, no tavern debates. All wanted their say without the worry of any spin the public or the press might put on a remark taken out of context. The surprising thing was, the men held to the code and completed the task.
Reaching a Compromise
Delegates from twelve states met over four months that Philadelphia summer. After many discussions and much contention, the Constitution was signed on Monday, September 17th, 1787.
The issues the men struggled with and argued over those four months were immense. States’ rights, slavery, the representation of small states versus large states, the power to tax and incur and pay debts, the power to coin money and regulate trade with foreign nations, the power to declare war and maintain armed forces—all these and more were bitterly contested and hotly negotiated. Yet those men, in spite of their strong personalities and egos, were able to compromise. They were able to structure a fair and stable government that has served a prospering nation for over two hundred years.
Benjamin Franklin, though he didn’t approve of several provisions in the Constitution, offered his unconditional support that historic morning:
“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 . . . Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”1Benjamin Franklin
George Washington was the first to sign the document that Monday, and men from each of the states in attendance lined up behind him.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak Collection, [LC-H814-T-P01-012]
Sharing the News
Needless to say, after four months of secrecy, the public was chomping at the bit to learn what their delegates had accomplished. It affected the populace in a profound way that few of us can appreciate today. Printers Dunlap and Claypoole typeset the document that Monday night. They sent it on a stage to New York early the next day, timing the New York release with the scheduled Wednesday release by the five major Philadelphia papers.
Remember Franklin’s statement?
“The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”
I don’t think the delegates in 1787 were any more principled or brilliant than our current senators and representatives. Well, maybe I do, but just a smidge. Surely, however, striving for compromise in the name of the public good is something well within our current members’ capabilities. I, for one, would like to see them try.
Liam Brock, one of the characters in the romantic historical novel Voices Beckon, had a keen interest in what and who made things happen. That interest only intensified during the summer of 1787. When printer’s apprentice David Graham obtained access to the Constitution a day before it was distributed, he shared it with Liam.
“So is it true then, Davey? It’s not a modification of the Articles of Confederation? It’s something fresh?”
David grinned. “It is, which explains the secrecy. But ye have to read it, Liam. It’s remarkable.” ~ Voices Beckon
- Stewart, David O. The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2007