By 1785 our nation was in great jeopardy, while many of the states had established congenial relations with their neighbors, others had become bitter adversaries primarily over land and border disputes including: New York’s continued claims over the Hampshire Grants, land claims by Connecticut settlers to the Wyoming Valley in northern Pennsylvania, New York’s imposition of shipping tariffs on New Jersey as well as numerous river and bay claims to water rights. Additionally, the states were having great difficulty maintaining control of domestic disputes within their borders; most notably Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786), a result of disagreements over heavy taxes, increasing interest rates, a burdensome court system that always seemed to favor creditors and a lack of “hard currency” – issues that pitted the moneyed interest in the east against the cash poor farmers in the western part of the state.
In 1786, a number of states sent delegates to Annapolis in hopes of resolving border issues and promoting equitable trade between their states, their attention soon turned to the pressing issue of their dysfunctional national government and the increasing tension between the citizenry and their governments. While they were unable to resolve their immediate concerns, they did agree to urge Congress to organize a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation to strengthen the national government. Subsequently, Congress approved their proposal and requested the states to appoint delegates to attend a meeting in May of 1787 in Philadelphia for that purpose.
The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention (known today as the Constitutional Convention) began to arrive in early May, however Rhode Island believed that attending the Convention would not be in their best interest and decided to boycott the meeting. Under the Articles of Confederation any changes to the agreement required approval by all the states and without Rhode Island’s participation, no changes could be accomplished. Some had come to the Convention with the intention of drafting a new governing document creating an invigorated national government and Rhode Island’s boycott provided the justification for their bold action.
While the states had appointed 70 delegates to attend the Convention, for various reasons only 55 actually participated in creating the Constitution. General George Washington was unanimously voted to lead the Convention as its president. The delegates were highly respected and well qualified, all had taken part in the Revolution, 29 had served in the Continental Army and most of them had served or were currently serving in Congress – all were committed to resolving the current national crisis.
The Articles of Confederation had not been without value and much of its content was incorporated into the new Constitution. A majority of the Convention’s attention was directed toward resolving the deficiencies of the Articles by establishing a powerful chief executive to lead the nation, a legislature representing both the citizens (the House of Representatives) as well as the states in their corporate capacity (the Senate) and a national judiciary to resolve controversial matters including resolving questions of interpretation of the Constitution and disputes between the states. Importantly, the Constitution provided for a procedure by which it could be changed. This process required proposed changes being approved by a two-thirds vote of both the House of Representatives and the Senate followed by ratification by three-fourths of the states. Fearing that the national government might one day become too powerful, the framers included a second method for amending the Constitution by means of a Constitutional Convention wherein two-thirds of the state legislatures would vote to convene a Constitutional Convention with any proposed amendments produced requiring approval by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
The Philadelphia Convention completed its work on September 17, 1787 and the completed, signed document was “laid before the United States in Congress assembled” on September 20th. On September 26th and 27th, Congress debated whether to censure the Convention delegates for exceeding their authority by creating a new Constitution of the United States, rather than accomplishing their mandated task of revising the Articles of Confederation. Congress voted to defer from censuring the committee and on September 28th directed each state legislature to call ratification conventions – to inform their citizens of the provisions of the new government laid out in the Constitution of the United States and to decide whether to accept or reject the document. The preamble clearly stated the document’s purposes – lofty goals for a nation in desperate need of a proper foundation:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and Secure the Blessings of Liberty to us and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In the closing days of the Convention, concerns arose over the sufficiency of checks on the power of the strengthened government over the states and their citizenry. To resolve those concerns, James Madison proposed that the Constitution should include a Bill of Rights to resolve outstanding concerns and to insure the rights of the states and their citizens were specifically protected. The Constitution did not authorize the national government to interfere with the rights and privileges of either the states or their citizens and many saw no need to enumerate such protection. Fortunately the Anti-Federalist remained unconvinced and pressed for Madison’s Bill of Rights to be incorporated into the Constitution – ten of Madison’s twelve articles were enacted as the first Amendments to the Constitution by the House of Representatives on August 21, 1789 and formally introduced as a joint resolution of September 25th taking effect on December 15th. At the time, many considered the Amendments to be superfluous, however they have proven to be a bulwark of protection for the states and more importantly the individual citizens. The Bill of Rights expounds freedoms that were not explicitly stated in the Constitution including: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, an unrestricted press, free assembly (association), to keep and bear arms, protection from unwarranted search and seizure, individual security in personal papers, home and effects, issuance of warrants without probable cause, indictment by a grand jury, guarantee of a speedy public trial by an impartial jury within the district where the alleged crime took place and the prohibition of excessive bail or fines, cruel and unusual punishment or double jeopardy. Lastly, the Bill of Rights reserved any powers not specifically delegated to the national government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it, to the states or respectively, to the people.
Ten months after Congress had called for the state ratifying conventions, nine states had approved the Constitution when New Hampshire ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788. News of New Hampshire’s approval reached Congress on July 2nd and Congress adopted the necessary resolutions and instructions to the ratifying states to fulfill their obligations in selecting Senators and House members so that the new national government under the Constitution could become operational on March 4, 1798. Massachusetts had questioned joining the new government; it was the recommended Bill of Rights that provided the needed surety of limited government convincing them to conditionally vote for ratification on February 6, 1788. In Virginia and New York, bitter debates raged over their state’s loss of power under the Constitution, however both voted for approval conditional on the inclusion of the proposed Bill of Rights (Virginia on June 25, 1788 and New York on July 26, 1788). North Carolina’s first ratifying Convention rejected the Constitution on August 2, 1788 and held a second Convention in November of 1789 which approved ratification by a wide margin primarily because Congress had passed the joint resolution approving the Bill of Rights. The final holdout, troublesome Rhode Island, refused to convene a ratifying Convention until May 26, 1790 and it was only the approval of the Bill of Rights and the prospects of being treated as a foreign nation by her former allies that compelled the state’s approval by the narrowest of margins 34 – 32.
Over the years, the United States of America under the Constitution has proved an enduring institution. The genius of those who met and debated every aspect of the proposed plan for their new government in the summer of 1787 has been proven by time. The Constitution’s amendment provisions have allowed it to adapt to a changing world. Unfortunately, political leaders over time have lost respect for the Constitution and its timeless design. Today, many in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government as well as most in the underlying bureaucracy view the Constitution as an outdated plan that should be vanquished to the dustbin of history. They view its Amendment process as an impediment to their vast plans and schemes to quickly change our nation to conform to their temporal ideas and whims. Especially troubling is the Judiciary, the Federal and Supreme Courts, where judges and justices have exceeded their mandate to protect and defend the freedoms enumerated in the Constitution. They have assumed the powers of the Legislature creating new, “extra-Constitutional” laws and restrictions that were not contemplated by the founders nor approved and adopted by the mandated Amendment process. Likewise, recent presidents have come to view the Constitution as antiquated and irrelevant, an impediment to be overlooked and overruled using unconstitutional procedures such as Executive Orders to allow them to govern by Executive fiat.
The present lack of respect for the Constitution and its prescribed principles and laws must not be allowed to persist – the states and the citizens must reassert their rights and authority over the federal government. This can be accomplished by electing individuals of great character with patriotic beliefs to represent us in both the state and federal legislatures in order to restore our nation’s character. Should this prove to be insufficient, we must demand our state legislators to join in a call for a Constitutional Convention to restore the proper balance of power and control between the federal government, the state governments and the individual citizens by amending our Constitution.
H. Brooke Paige is a historian and writer; he is a frequent contributor to The World. Brooke welcomes comments and criticism; he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box #41, Washington, Vermont 05675.