Today We Celebrate
Today is Constitution Day. On September 17, 1787, delegates met for a final signing ceremony. Thirty-nine signed and three refused. (George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph were the dissenting delegates present that day.) None of those who signed believed their signature made the Constitution the supreme law of the land. Ratification by conventions of the people would be necessary to complete a contract that started with the words, “We the people.” In truth, it required nearly a year of raucous debates before the Constitution formally supplanted the Articles of Confederation. June 21, 1788 might be a more appropriate date to celebrate our Constitution because that was when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. That’s okay. We celebrate independence on July 4th, when we declared ourselves free. It took seven years of fighting and over 10,000 American casualties to make that declaration a fact.
The United States Constitution is unique in its brevity, longevity, and unique limits on the very government it authorizes. Our Constitution balances power between separate, equal branches and then gives each branch checks on the powers of the other two branches. The Constitution simultaneously sanctions a stronger national government while putting limits on its powers. Odd. This design slows governance and forces change to be preceded by a general consensus of the whole of society. It seems counter-intuitive, especially since the Framers purpose was to replace a weak national government.
Why burden this new government with so many obstructions to fast and authoritative governance? To protect liberty. Governments govern. It’s their nature. And governance is power. Sometimes raw and even lethal power. Unchecked, bad actors will use that power to dictate the habits, actions, and opinions of the populous. We the people would be at risk. It was our contract, so we wanted protections. We wanted limits on how the government could intrude on our daily lives and the lives of our families.
When you celebrate Constitution Day, remember what makes the United States exceptional. It’s not the people. People are the same throughout the world and throughout time. It’s not our money. Many nations have been rich. It’s not our military. Many empires have had powerful armies. What makes the United States of America exceptional is our founding. Unlike other nations, the United States was formed by reason.
By 1787, the passions of the Revolution had abated enough that fifty-five men could locked themselves in a room for four months and debate the very best form of government. Most of these men knew each other from years of politicking or war. Twenty-nine served in a military capacity during the Revolution and another twenty-three risked their fortunes and lives by taking an active political role during the war. Eight committed treason by signing the Declaration of Independence. In colonial America, college degrees were rare, yet twenty-nine held college degrees and many others were self-educated in the classics and modern political thought. Almost all of the delegates were knowledgeable about Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu. Ten had degrees from the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton), six from European universities, four from Harvard, four from Yale, four from William and Mary, two from the College of Philadelphia, and one from Kings College (later to become Columbia University).
These men often vehemently disagreed, but they refused to give up. They stuck with it until they designed the very best government possible. A government that could govern, but would not threaten the liberty of its citizens. Then they didn’t issue an edict to the country because they believed themselves wise and entitled. They sent their work to thirteen conventions of the people to get their concurrence on this new government. This government had the imprint of legitimacy because the people were given the authority to approve the new system. Everyone participated. The entire nation. People debated in broadside, pamphlets, taverns, churches and in the ratification conventions. This is what makes the United States exceptional. Not just the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, but the cultural implication that all political power emanated from the people.
The United States was formed at the tail end of the Age of Reason, and our founding was the culmination of the Enlightenment. It could not have happened anywhere else. We were an infant in the scheme of nations and we were positioned to take advantage of a revolution of ideas about the relationship between the governors and the governed.
This day, celebrate our Constitution and founding. It was a magnificent achievement.
James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn and eight other books.
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