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–by Joanna Hallac

On September 17, 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention gathered one last time at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to sign the document they had created. Having originally convened in February 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation, it became quite apparent soon after they began work that simply revising the Articles would not be sufficient and that an entirely new document to set up an entirely different type of government would be necessary to fulfill the promise of the new American nation. The signing of the Constitution was, however, only the beginning of the story.

Today, while politicians from the two major parties squabble over seemingly everything, the ideological difference at the heart of their arguments stem from one central issue: the size and role of the federal government. This continuing argument began in 1787; as soon as the contents of the new federal constitution were made public, the debate that began in secret between delegates of the Constitutional Convention soon spread throughout the 13 states. To many Americans, the idea of a centralized federal government with an executive seemed far too reminiscent of the monarchy they had just finished fighting to break free from. Even though the Framers were proposing a government that revolved around the legislative branch, not the executive, and that had checks and balances inherent in its design to prevent any one person or branch from consolidating power, people still felt uneasy…enter James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

In an effort to assuage fears and doubts about the proposed constitution, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay penned a series of essays, under the name “Publius,” in several New York newspapers in an attempt to make their case to voters there. The essays, which became known as The Federalist Papers, are still our best window into the insights of the Framers as to why they believed so strongly in federalism as the best way forward for our country, its government, and its people. And while these essays were directed at the people of the State of New York, the arguments contained within them were echoed throughout the 13 states, culminating in the eventual ratification of our Constitution by all the states, with the last being Rhode Island on May 29, 1790.

Howard Chandler Christy's painting Signing of the Constitution hangs in the East Stairway of the House (Architect of the Capitol)

The Constitution of the United States of America is the oldest such written document still in use today by any country in the world, and it has truly maintained its relevance over the past 220 years, having been amended only 27 times during that period. To encourage Americans to learn as much as they could about the document that has a daily impact on our lives, Congress first instituted Constitution Week in 1956, which begin each year on September 17th, as a way to focus people’s attention on the importance of the Constitution. Then in 2004, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia included a provision in the FY’05 appropriations bill to mandate that public schools observe September 17th every year as Constitution Day and provide educational materials and resources to help teachers and students throughout the country do so. (USCHS has lesson plans and other materials available on our website.)

The Constitution is often referred to as a “living” document, and it has proven to be as it continues to guide us from year to year, generation to generation, constantly interpreted and reinterpreted to not only reflect what its Framers intended, but also to reflect all that has changed in how we live now in the 21st century. The Constitution is no less consequential today than it was in 1787; however, as Americans we too often take all that we have for granted. I hope that Constitution Day can provide everyone with some time to simply acknowledge, perhaps in slight awe, what our Founding Fathers created back in 1787, and how different we would be as a people and a nation if they somehow were unable to put the country first and reach a compromise—which is a lesson perhaps all of our current elected officials could do well to learn.

How does your knowledge of the Constitution stack up? Take one of our Constitutional Quizzes–and report your score below, if you’re up for it. (We know about the error and the typo. Can you find them?) Or, do you have a favorite part of the Constitution? What do you admire most about it? Do you think it should be amended, and how?

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