By Bill Moore
Last week came and went with minimal acknowledgement of one of the most important days in the world’s history — Constitution Day.
The Constitutional Convention convened in May of 1787. Debate crawled along through the summer, focusing on governance, commerce, slavery, states’ rights and other important considerations. Ultimately, a final document was produced, voted upon, signed on September 17, 1787 and sent to the several states for ratification. Ratification by nine of the thirteen was required for order for adoption. But why was a new governing document necessary?
The Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781, shortly before the October British surrender at Yorktown. The newly minted nation formalized a method of self-governing through the Articles, however, it was not a structure that could sustain itself. Congress was the singular governing federal body under the Articles.
Article II read, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.“
Article III declared, “The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.”
In other words, we were essentially a country comprised of thirteen independent units.
Challenges to the new government including a struggling economy, the inability to raise taxes and regulate commerce, and internal discord (Shay’s Rebellion) among other things, ultimately led to the convening of the Constitutional Convention in May of 1787.
The delegates convened in Philadelphia, elected George Washington its President and began the arduous task of creating a new structure of government. Twelve of the states were represented; only Rhode Island failed to send delegates.
There were two primary plans put forward at the convention, the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. The Virginia Plan apportioned representation based on the population of each state. The New Jersey plan gave each state an equal vote in Congress. It should not be a surprise that the more populated states supported the Virginia Plan while smaller states favored the New Jersey Plan.
Enter the Great Comprise, the Connecticut Plan. The Connecticut Plan called for three branches of government. There would be proportional representation in a House of Representatives based on population and equal representation in a Senate. In addition, the President would be chosen by electors based on the number of senators and representatives the individual states had. The plan also created an independent judiciary.
Ratification occurred when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, on June 22, 1788. The Convention established March 9, 1789, as the date for the new government to become operational. When the new government commenced, only North Carolina and Rhode Island had yet to ratify the Constitution. The Ocean State was the last of the original thirteen to ratify on May 29, 1790.
During the ratification process, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions were locked in a seemingly irreconcilable dispute over the exact role of national government, states’ rights and individual rights. Several states refused to ratify the Constitution unless they were assured that the new government would amend the Constitution to address the dispute.
In the early days of the new Congress, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” drove 17 amendments through the House of Representatives. The Senate reduced the list to 12 and they were sent to President Washington. The twelve were sent to the states for adoption and by December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified ten of them and the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution.
What a remarkable document. Over the course of its 231 years, only 27 amendments have been added. It truly is the envy of the world.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.