Sunday, May 9, 2010

Constitutional History Lesson

I think that each of us, as citizens, have a duty to know what our constitution is, and the circumstances of its creation.  I have begun reading the biography "John Adams" in an attempt to learn more about one of the founding fathers.  To that end, I have included a brief history lesson with information regarding the forming of the Constitution.

The thirteen colonies and three and one-half million Americans who had won independence from the British crown a few years earlier were badly divided on many fundamental issues. Some thought the colonies should reaffiliate with the British crown. Among the majority who favored continued independence, the most divisive issue was whether the United States should have a strong central government to replace the weak “league of friendship” established by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Confederation of 1781, there was no executive or judicial authority, and the national Congress had no power to tax or to regulate commerce. The thirteen states retained all their sovereignty, and the national government could do nothing without their approval. The Articles of Confederation could not be amended without the unanimous approval of all the states, and every effort to strengthen this loose confederation had failed.


Congress could not even protect itself. In July 1783, an armed mob of former Revolutionary War soldiers seeking back wages threatened to take Congress hostage at its meeting in Philadelphia. When Pennsylvania declined to provide militia to protect them, the congressmen fled. Thereafter Congress was a laughingstock, wandering from city to city.

Unless America could adopt a central government with sufficient authority to function as a nation, the thirteen states would remain a group of insignificant, feuding little nations united by nothing more than geography and forever vulnerable to the impositions of aggressive foreign powers. No wonder the first purpose stated in the preamble of the new United States Constitution was “to form a more perfect union.”

The Constitution had its origin in a resolution by which the relatively powerless Congress called delegates to a convention to discuss amendments to the Articles of Confederation. This convention was promoted by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, two farsighted young statesmen still in their thirties, who favored a strong national government. They persuaded a reluctant George Washington to attend and then used his influence in a letter-writing campaign to encourage participation by all the states. The convention was held in Philadelphia, whose population of a little over 40,000 made it the largest city in the thirteen states.

As the delegates assembled, there were ominous signs of disunity. It was not until eleven days after the scheduled beginning of the convention that enough states were represented to form a quorum. New Hampshire’s delegation arrived more than two months late because the state had not provided them travel money. No delegates ever came from Rhode Island.

Economically and politically, the country was alarmingly weak. The states were in a paralyzing depression. Everyone was in debt. The national treasury was empty. Inflation was rampant. The various currencies were nearly worthless. The trade deficit was staggering. Rebelling against their inclusion in New York State, prominent citizens of Vermont had already entered into negotiations to rejoin the British crown. In the western territory, Kentucky leaders were speaking openly about turning from the union and forming alliances with the Old World.

Instead of reacting timidly because of disunity and weakness, the delegates boldly ignored the terms of their invitation to amend the Articles of Confederation and instead set out to write an entirely new constitution. They were conscious of their place in history. For millennia the world’s people had been ruled by kings or tyrants. Now a group of colonies had won independence from a king and their representatives had the unique opportunity of establishing a constitutional government Abraham Lincoln would later describe as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The delegates faced staggering obstacles. The leaders in the thirteen states were deeply divided on the extent to which the states would cede any power to a national government. If there was to be a strong central government, there were seemingly irresolvable differences on how to allocate the ingredients of national power between large and small states. As to the nature of the national executive, some wanted to copy the British parliamentary system. At least one delegate even favored the adoption of a monarchy. Divisions over slavery could well have prevented any agreement on other issues. There were 600,000 black slaves in the thirteen states, and slavery was essential in the view of some delegates and repulsive to many others.

Deeming secrecy essential to the success of their venture, the delegates spent over three months in secret sessions, faithfully observing their agreement that no one would speak outside the meeting room on the progress of their work. They were fearful that if their debates were reported to the people before the entire document was ready for submission, the opposition would unite to kill the effort before it was born. This type of proceeding would obviously be impossible today. There is irony in the fact that a constitution which protects the people’s “right to know” was written under a set of ground rules that its present beneficiaries would not tolerate.

It took the delegates seven weeks of debate to resolve the question of how the large and small states would be represented in the national congress. The Great Compromise provided a senate with equal representation for each state, and a lower house in which representation was apportioned according to the whole population of free persons in the state, plus three-fifths of the slaves. The vote on this pivotal issue was five states in favor and four against; other states did not vote, either because no delegates were present or because their delegation was divided. Upon that fragile base, the delegates went forward to consider other issues, including the nature of the executive and judicial branches, and whether the document should include a bill of rights.

The drafting of the Constitution was only the beginning. By its terms it would not go into effect until ratified by conventions in nine states. But if the nation was to be united and strong, the new Constitution had to be ratified by the key states of Virginia and New York, where the opposition was particularly strong. The extent of opposition coming out of the convention is suggested by the fact that of seventy-four appointed delegates, only fifty-five participated in the convention, and only thirty-nine of these signed the completed document.


It was nine months before nine states had ratified, and the last of the key states was not included until a month later, when the New York convention ratified by a vote of thirty to twenty-seven. To the “miracle of Philadelphia” one must therefore add “the miracle of ratification.”

Ratification probably could not have been secured without a commitment to add a written bill of rights. The first ten amendments, which included the Bill of Rights, were ratified a little over three years after the Constitution itself.

That the Constitution was ratified is largely attributable to the fact that the principal leaders in the states were willing to vote for a document that failed to embody every one of their preferences. For example, influential Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris negotiating a treaty and therefore did not serve as a delegate, felt strongly that a bill of rights should have been included in the original Constitution. But Jefferson still supported the Constitution because he felt it was the best available. Benjamin Franklin stated that view in these words:

“When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage over their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does. … The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”

Those who enjoy the blessings of liberty under a divinely inspired constitution should promote morality, and they should practice what the Founding Fathers called “civic virtue.” In his address on the U.S. Constitution, Ezra Taft Benson [former secretary of the interior] quoted this important observation by John Adams, the second president of the United States:


“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Similarly, James Madison, who is known as the “Father of the Constitution,” stated his assumption that there had to be “sufficient virtue among men for self-government.” He argued in the Federalist Papers that “republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

It is part of our civic duty to be moral in our conduct toward all people. There is no place in responsible citizenship for dishonesty or deceit or for willful law breaking of any kind. I believe with the author of Proverbs that “righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Prov. 14:34.) The personal righteousness of citizens will strengthen a nation more than the force of its arms.

Citizens should also be practitioners of civic virtue in their conduct toward government. They should be ever willing to fulfill the duties of citizenship. This includes compulsory duties like military service and the numerous voluntary actions they must take if they are to preserve the principle of limited government through citizen self-reliance. For example, since U.S. citizens value the right of trial by jury, they must be willing to serve on juries, even those involving unsavory subject matter. Citizens who favor morality cannot leave the enforcement of moral laws to jurors who oppose them.

The single word that best describes a fulfillment of the duties of civic virtue is patriotism. Citizens should be patriotic. My favorite prescription for patriotism is that of Adlai Stevenson:

“What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? … A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

I close with a poetic prayer. It is familiar to everyone in the United States, because U.S. citizens sing it in one of their loveliest hymns. It expresses gratitude to God for liberty, and it voices a prayer that he will continue to bless them with the holy light of freedom:

Our fathers’ God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light.
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King!

-Author Dallin H. Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” Ensign, Feb 1992, 68