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Monday, September 17, 2007
Anniversary Notes

Here are a few relatively quick thoughts on today's auspicious anniversary.

Today is an important anniversary in American history, though I dare say most of the people currently living in the United States, where the anniversary is most relevant, will not notice it at all. Nor will much of the rest of the world, despite the day's impact on their history. In any case, exactly 220 years ago today in Philadelphia, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 finished its work on a proposed Constitution of the United States.

I don't want to analyze here the intricacies of constitutional law and constitutional history, or attempting to describe and measure the influence the US Constitution and its nation have wielded in the world. The only length that seems to fit these topics is very great length, which is beyond my time, my format, and my interest today. Instead, I will here suggest just a few items of interest, and those rather briefly.

An Important Book

The next step after the convention was debate and ratification by the state legislatures. The Convention decided that nine of 13 states would be sufficient to approve the proposed Constitution -- a three-fourths majority -- but preferred ratification by all 13. A long, often very intelligent, sometimes bitter debate ensued in each state. The most famous and important part of that debate we now call The Federalist Papers, literally dozens of essays explaining and advocating the Constitution, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay under the shared pen name Publius. Some of these articles, numbers 10 and 45, for example, have a lasting, honored place in political thought.

Political Realism I

In thinking of this part of our history, we may wrongly suppose that our sainted Founding Fathers tended to agree with each other, at least on the important things, and that all the people fell neatly and quietly in line behind them. Often we also underestimate the difficulty and the risk of what they proposed; it had never been done before. And we fail to appreciate that, but for a single vote here and a forceful personality there, all of this might well not have happened at all.

Many believe, quite reasonably, that God nudged matters toward the eventual successful outcome. I believe that too, but that does not mean that the winning ideas, institutions, and factions routed or destroyed their opposition. What if, in the economy of Heaven, divine participation in mortal affairs is calculated to lead not to overwhelming victory, but just to victory -- often by the narrowest of margins? In this case the perceived divine help did not mean that the proper course of action was completely obvious at the time to everyone -- or to anyone, really -- or that the Convention's and Constitution's proponents were unbuffeted by their own doubts and uncertainties. Divine aid doesn't mean that there was no serious compromise of essential interests or right principles (whatever those may be) along the way. And it certainly doesn't mean the Constitution that resulted was perfect from the beginning, or would be so at any point thereafter. Institutional perfection would be wasted on mortal humanity, anyway.

Political Realism II

Before the end of 1787, Delaware and New Jersey legislatures ratified the proposed Constitution unanimously, and Pennsylvania's legislature ratified it by a two-to-one majority. In the first six weeks of 1788, Georgia ratified unanimously, Connecticut ratified by a large majority, and Massachusetts became the first state to ratify by a narrow margin, a mere 19 votes of  355 cast. In April Maryland's legislature ratified by almost a six-to-one majority, and in May South Carolina followed suit by more than a two-to-one majority. On June 25, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, in a 57-to-47 vote, and the Constitution was considered ratified.

Before it went into official effect on March 4, 1789, Virginia and New York ratified by fairly narrow margins. Months later, after the formal proposal in Congress (but not yet the ratification) of the Bill of Rights, North Carolina ratified by a large majority in November 1789. It was May 29, 1790, before the last state, Rhode Island, ratified 34 to 32. Rhode Island's was the narrowest margin; a single vote changed from yea to nay would have defeated the proposition in a tie.

I belabor the matter of state ratification, vote counts and all, to emphasize this point: Even after the Convention had compromised and innovated its way to a remarkable new sort of government, widespread acceptance of their proposal was neither immediate nor easily won. Even Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts ratified by relatively narrow margins -- and these states where the sources of some of the Convention's most pivotal figures, most salient prototypes, and most innovative thought. Notably, Virginia's Patrick Henry and Massachusetts' Samuel Adams, towering revolutionary figures who were not delegates to the Convention, actually argued against new proposed Constitution, fearing the strength of the national government it proposed.

Not Our First

We sometimes forget that the United States Constitution was not the new nation's first governing document. The first was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (more commonly just "Articles of Confederation"), adopted in 1777 and fully ratified in 1781. This document created a relatively loose confederation that proved over a decade to have some serious inadequacies. At least, that was the Federalists' opinion, but it was by no means a consensus. Some, including Patrick Henry, thought the Articles sufficient, or at least susceptible of repair. Some -- probably correctly -- questioned the Convention's authority to replace the Articles wholesale, rather than merely amending them. And if you study the process the Articles of Confederation set forth for ratifying amendments, you may find that process differs from the method the Convention imposed for the ratification of its Constitution.

If There's a Lesson

If there's a lesson in all this, maybe it's that a narrow victory after a long, long debate and even a failed attempt or two is what success looks like -- and that it is unreasonable to expect consensus in important political matters, and inappropriate to lose hope or courage because the battle is long.

Of course, this lesson is available only to those equipped to consider history. Maybe there's a lesson there, too.

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