Today, as we do every September 17, we celebrate the document that embodies the American spirit and ideals.
In May of 1787, when the delegates to the Federal Convention convened to overhaul the Articles of Confederation, debate over the issues the new nation faced brought the delegates to the conclusion that the original governing document should be set aside, and an entirely new frame of government established.
The end result was the Constitution of the United States; the Social Contract that to this very day governs our lives and defines the boundaries of our relationship with our government.
Competing visions of government were considered and debated, and a draft emerged on August 6th. Two weeks later, commerce and slavery collided, and nearly ceased the proceedings. A week into September, the delegates were exhausted and ready to return home, and the final draft was turned over to committee for the preparation of the final draft, which was returned finished on September 12. On September 15, it was voted on by the convention for the last time, and it passed unanimously. Every vote on the roll call was “aye.”
Ben Franklin was the first delegate to emerge from Constitution hall, where a crowd had gathered after rumor spread through the town that the work was done, the document was complete. The crowd grew excited, and the Mayor’s wife, Mrs. Powell, called out over the noise of the crowd, “Well Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a monarchy or a republic?” He peered at her over his glasses and said “A republic, Madame, IF you can keep it.”
From there, it went to the states, where now the fight was between the Federalists who backed ratification and the anti-Federalists who opposed.
Pennsylvania was the first state to call for a ratification convention. All eyes in the nation were cast toward that state. Pennsylvania was large, wealthy and powerful, and there was much at stake. The positions of both Federalists and anti-Federalists were printed in newspapers throughout the land.
Passions were high.
When the Federalist-dominated state ratifying convention lacked a quorum of members to conduct the vote on September 29, an angry mob took Participatory Democracy to a whole new level.
They went to the homes of two anti-Federalist lawmakers and dragged them to the statehouse, forcing their presence, and a quorum.
Anti-Federalist sentiments ran equally high, however, and in New York, a series of essays penned under the pseudonym “Cato” began appearing, assailing the Constitution for the strong central government it established.
A counter offensive was undertaken by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, with the help of James Madison. Before the end of 1787, the first of the Federalist Papers would be published. The 85 essays, most penned by Hamilton, examined the failings of the Articles of Confederation, and building the case for a strong central government. Thomas Jefferson later called the Federalist Papers the “best commentary on the principles of government ever written.” (Now would be an excellent time to reread them, but who am I to assign you homework?)
The fight was not over. By January 1788, only five of the nine states needed for ratification had voted to do so – Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Georgia and New Jersey. The ratifying convention in Massachusetts did not ratify until the addition of a Bill of Rights.
That made six.
But the Federalists were not on the homestretch yet. The New Hampshire convention would be adjourned before the vote by Federalists sensing defeat. Rhode Island put it to the citizens in the form of a referendum, and the citizens turned down the Constitution with an overwhelming 10-to-1 rejection.
The Federalist leaders were getting nervous. They turned their focus to Maryland, and Madison wrote to George Washington “The difference between even a postponement and adoption in Maryland may . . . possibly give a fatal advantage to that which opposes the constitution.” Madison expended much anxiety needlessly. The Maryland convention overwhelmingly approved the Constitution, with 63 delegates voting “aye” and only 11 “nays.”
That made seven.
In May, South Carolina adopted the Constitution, so when New Hampshire ratified in the summer of 1788, the Constitution became the Social Contract. With the ratification of the Constitution by a reconvened New Hampshire convention, the Congress appointed a committee “for putting the said Constitution into operation.”
By September, Virginia and New York would ratify as well, but the votes were very close.
Heroes of the Revolution, Patrick Henry foremost, had opposed the new Constitution because it was vague, and it was only adopted when the amendments we know as The Bill of Rights were added.
It was an age of debate and participation and compromise. In the end, the founders gave us a Republic. It is our charge to keep it.
Crossposted from They Gave Us a Republic