226 Years Later, The Constitution Still Works
The Constitution is old—really old. All of the men who spent the summer of 1787 behind closed doors in Philadelphia, debating and drafting, are like Roman demigods- and that is due, with good reason, to a reputation-lifting mythology that endows all of our founding fathers.
It was 226 years ago today our founding fathers (sorry, ladies) gathered to sign off on the U.S. Constitution before sending it to the states for ratification. They had originally gathered thinking that they might tinker around the edges of the existing, broken system under the Articles of Confederation. Yet by the end of the convention, they had truly reinvented government. The new United States Constitution, celebrated each year on September 17, was destined to become what one expert referred to as the hinge-point in history: a point when representative government replaced more hierarchical systems.
Many of the founders were intellectuals, but perhaps none of them had the intellectual gravity of James Madison. Someone once said of Madison that he “contained an astonishing ratio of mind to mass,” in reference to Madison’s significant brainpower vis-à-vis a diminutive physical stature. In his rural Virginia home in Orange County, the “Sage of Montpelier” prepared well ahead of the Constitutional Convention, reading treatises and volumes on the many failed attempts at making government more perfect, albeit never fully perfected. The intellectual grounding of Madison and others fashioned a linchpin in the axels of liberty that caused America to move from the good to the great country we know today.
Our liberty, then and now, has never been easy to retain, sometimes because the founders didn’t get it all right on the first go. A reading of Madison’s own “Notes of Debates” suggests that several issues generated contentious debate in Philadelphia, the most haunting of which was not resolved until the Civil War. A second mistake is that we lacked a truly representative system until women and Native Americans entered the voting booths in the 20th century. But with only 27 amendments changing its original text, the Constitution has proven its ability to withstand the test of time. Perhaps even the “Great Little Madison” could not have imagined how a few people could have such a lasting effect on so many. And let’s be honest, even a modern Madison would likely agree that America is stronger today because more than male landholders get the vote—even if it is because Dolley was kicking James under the table.
The inclusion of more and more citizens in our process is one of the ways we have made our union more perfect over time. America is a complicated place where the expectation of divergent opinions and the welcome of critical speech provide an unexpected glue, particularly in times of crisis. Brilliantly, our entire system works best when people of all means are debating and struggling with how best we maintain our e pluribus unum-ness. Perhaps it is because the “we” in “we the people” is so prevalent. When asked who should elect members of Congress to represent the people, another Convention participant, James Wilson, noted the now-obvious answer, “If we are to establish a national Government, that Government ought to flow from the people at large.”
The many voices and opinions found in today’s debates seem like they should create near anarchy. And yet, out of those many opinions comes one people, under one Constitution and one rule of law, who continue to shine. Sure, Congress’s ratings are in the tank, and the President isn’t doing much better, but it might be because it’s time for America to remind itself that if we don’t like what is happening in Washington, we need to renew our ownership in our national destiny. It has always belonged to each of us. The U.S. Constitution is an amazing document that has survived, and will survive regardless of its age, because it is born out of shared national values, like tranquility, justice, general welfare, and those great sisters of freedom—liberty and prosperity.
Constitution Day is a wonderful reminder of how far we have come and always sets the stage for debates about how far we have to go. So huzzah! Let’s get down to perfecting.
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