The sun has set again on another September 17th. Seemingly just another day in September gone by, one would think.
Two hundred twenty-seven years ago on that date, thirty-eight men1The Constitution bears thirty-nine signatures; George Read signed the name of fellow Delaware delegate, John Dickinson, at Dickinson’s request. , representing twelve of the thirteen states, signed their names to the final draft of a proposed Constitution, for submission to the Congress2Congress here refers to that body under the Articles of Confederation, referred to variously as “Congress Here Assembled”, Continental ...continue and consideration by the States.
Fifty-five delegates, chosen by their respective state legislatures, began their work on May 25, 1787, to correct defects in the existing governing charter3See also, “George Washington warns that the knee jerk reaction of citizens to problems is to seek a solution in the creation of a ‘new ...continue, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The delegates labored for nearly four months with heavy drapes drawn and windows closed in the sweltering Philadelphia summer to preserve utmost secrecy.
Rather than a list of Confederation reform proposals, they devised a new form of government. As Linda explained in one of the most read articles on our site, an inquiry of Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall that day revealed that new government was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The delegates’ decisions were actually greeted by the existing Congress with two days of debate over the prospect of censuring delegates for exceeding their authority.
Obviously, Congress voted instead to send the Constitution to the States for their consideration. It took until the following June for the ninth state, New Hampshire, to ratify and, therefore to officially take effect. It would be another year (May 29, 1790) before the remaining four states, followed suit. Notably, Virginia, home of James Madison and George Washington, and the most populous state, was among the last four to ratify4Virginia’s internal debate over the new Constitution is among the most interesting and instructive of the thirteen. For instance, among the ...continue.
The Constitution and the convention were controversial at the time. The document, its basis, its authors, the process, and its controversies have been relevant ever since5 However controversial the Constitution, the Convention that produced it, and heated the debates over the fundamental issues, it is very important to ...continue.
But, the date of September 17th comes and goes every year just like it’s any other day. No date associated with the Constitution has ever became part of our culture – it doesn’t even command the (in)dignity of garish, mercenary “sales event” flyers (think President’s Day). Googling “this day in history September 17”, retrieves a page of results dominated by the Civil War’s Battle of Antietam.
How ironic, actually.
Headlines in the past couple of years report historic distrust of government by the American people and, worse, an overwhelming belief that the government is a threat to freedoms, that government does not have the consent of the governed.
In discussing these trends, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds (also know for his blog, InstaPundit), noted that some polls reveal that the only institution Americans any longer trust, is the military. In a 2013 interview6 Reynolds was a guest on the Liberty Fund / Hoover Institution’s weekly podcast, Econtalk, to discuss an editorial published in the February 4, ...continue he interpreted these polls, taken together:
“The current trend can’t go on forever.
The question is sort of what comes next? And there are a lot of different possibilities, ranging anywhere from civil war and a military coup–which I think is not especially likely but it’s probably more likely than it’s been in my lifetime… I think those are warning signs [and] we should be scared of that.”
George Washington University’s Professor of Law Jonathan Turley, a self-identified liberal supporter of President Obama’s policies, generally, testified to the Congressional Committee on the Judiciary earlier this year:
“We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis with sweeping implications for our system of government. There has been a massive gravitational shift of authority to the Executive Branch that threatens the stability and functionality of our tripartite system.”
Professor Turley rightfully explains that this crisis wasn’t started by President Obama, nor should blame be placed solely on the Executive. There’s been a consistent breakdown in the separation of powers because Congress is responsible for its own abdications.
To that, I’ll add what Washington, D.C. types frequently overlook: The states are supposed to provide additional balance and separation of powers, but that’s consistently broken down, too. The most succinct explanation of this problem I’ve seen in recent years, comes, ironically, from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts:
And it seems to me that they [the States] have compromised their status as independent sovereigns because they are so dependent on what the Federal Government has done… – they tied the strings, they shouldn’t be surprised if the Federal Government isn’t going to start pulling them.
How shall we address what Jonathan Turley described as a constitutional crisis, what Glenn Reynolds describes as a source of fear? Reynolds and others suggest Constitutional remedies. I happen to agree, in general, but, how many people even know what those might be?
Without the fundamental document and its principles embedded in our culture, how can we identify the fundamental causes or fundamental solutions?
Article VI of the Constitution, states in part:
“This Constitution, and the Law of the United States shall be made in pursuance thereof;”
Further, those laws “… shall be the supreme Law of the Land;”
Distrust in government is high because the very people who make and execute the laws, too often aren’t making laws in pursuance of the Constitution, aren’t living through or under the law themselves.
“Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government.” ~ President Calvin Coolidge, speech commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
This is an eloquent way of saying, that our government is merely a reflection of us — we have the government we deserve.
The majority of us received a poor education, provided (or heavily subsidized), by government. This proves President Coolidge’s point, doesn’t it? We do have to bear our own responsibilities, so, we must educate ourselves. (And I don’t mean we need to talk about how other people need to educate themselves.)
How much do YOU know about the Constitution? It’s history, its basis, its controversies, its available remedies? How may Americans can fully and coherently articulate answers to the following questions?
- Why were the Articles of Confederation deemed unworthy of reform?
- Why was a republic preferable to a Confederation, or other forms, such as democracy?
- What is a republic?
- Why did the Confederation Congress not censure the delegates and move on to a ratification process?
- How did the ratification process work?
- What were the arguments for and against the Constitution during the ratification process?
- Were some objections at the time ultimately relevant?
- Why did proponents ultimately win the debate?
- What changes have been made to the Constitution since its ratification?
- Have changes made contributed to the current state of affairs?
In pointing back to the beginning, to fundamentals, I’ll share something new I learned regarding September 17, 1787…
James Madison’s notes from that date reported:
Whilst the last members were signing it (i.e., the Constitution) Doct FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.
In quoting Professors Turley and Reynolds, my frame of mind is quite plain. I’d like to see an ever-rising sun on this nation. I pray it will always be so. And, speaking of fundamentals, prayer and contemplation is always the best place to start7There was only space to allude to what was and should be a fundamental element in considering the subject of our Constitution and health (or lack ...continue.
Notes & References [ + ]
|1.||↑||The Constitution bears thirty-nine signatures; George Read signed the name of fellow Delaware delegate, John Dickinson, at Dickinson’s request.|
|2.||↑||Congress here refers to that body under the Articles of Confederation, referred to variously as “Congress Here Assembled”, Continental Congress, and Confederation Congress|
|3.||↑||See also, “George Washington warns that the knee jerk reaction of citizens to problems is to seek a solution in the creation of a ‘new monarch’ (1786)”.|
|4.||↑||Virginia’s internal debate over the new Constitution is among the most interesting and instructive of the thirteen. For instance, among the delegates to both the Constitutional and Virginia ratifying conventions, were two of the most overlooked founders of the country, Edmund Randolph and George Mason, who refused to sign the document on September 17, due to numerous objections, especially a lack of a bill of rights. Also among the ratifying delegates were James Madison, future Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe.|
|5.||↑||However controversial the Constitution, the Convention that produced it, and heated the debates over the fundamental issues, it is very important to note how extraordinary, actually unique the process. French political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, may have articulated it best, “But it is new in the history of society to see a great people turn a calm and scrutinizing eye upon itself when apprised by the legislature that the wheels of its government are stopped, to see it carefully examine the extent of the evil, and patiently wait two whole years until a remedy is discovered, to which it voluntarily submitted without its costing a tear or a drop of blood from mankind.” From Chapter VIII, Democracy in America.|
|6.||↑||Reynolds was a guest on the Liberty Fund / Hoover Institution’s weekly podcast, Econtalk, to discuss an editorial published in the February 4, 2013, USA Today.|
|7.||↑||There was only space to allude to what was and should be a fundamental element in considering the subject of our Constitution and health (or lack thereof) of our society. Primary source documents from the periods of Colonial, Revolution, Constitutional and Ratifying conventions, exhibit a clear consensus, summarized most succinctly by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798) This fundamental concept endured in our country for most of its history. For instance, a century and a half after declaring independence, President Coolidge articulated the same ideals, “In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.”|