, , ,

–by Joanna Hallac

Two hundred and twenty-five years ago today, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention met one final time in Philadelphia, and what ensued changed the history of this country and the world. When all was said and done, thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates there voted to approve the document and affixed their signatures to it, marking the beginning of the Constitution’s road to ratification and formal adoption by the United States of America. It wouldn’t be an easy sell to all of the people and states in the Union, especially those wary of such a powerful federal government, but in the end the Federalists prevailed. With this anniversary comes an opportunity for reflection about the document, its purpose and meaning, and how much it might change as the 21st century continues to unfold.

As I mentioned, the ratification of the U.S. Constitution was far from a guarantee, as there were many states where a strong federal government was akin to a tyrannical ruler, not unlike the monarchy they had just fought a revolution to break free from. Knowing they would have their work cut out for them, three of the framers of the Constitution put pen to paper in defense of this new document in what we call The Federalist Papers. Under the name Publius, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, wrote a series of eighty-five essays in New York newspapers between October 1787 and August 1788 in a plea to the people of the State of New York to urge ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In them, each man took turns addressing the various parts of the Constitution, the reasons behind the creation of each part of the federal government, and overall why this was the best way forward for the country. These writings give us our most worthwhile insight into the men and ideas that created the great document and shaped our nation’s future.

An advertisement for the Federalist from a 1787 newspaper (courtesy of the Gutenberg Project)

In rereading the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, the thing that strikes me the most is what is not there, more so than what is. We criticize today’s politicians for “punting” or “kicking the can down the road” on issues, to borrow some of the most overused catchphrases of American politics right now, yet is that not what the authors of the Constitution did on one of the key issues of our nation’s history, namely slavery? The Bill of Rights and all of the freedoms and guarantees given to us under those first ten amendments and all those that have come after, was not a part of the Constitution, but a separate document passed after the fact, and something not all the founding fathers liked the idea of back then. There is no mention of the word privacy in the entire document either, but do you know any American who doesn’t consider such a right to be inherent?

My point here is not to point out shortcomings in our Constitution or the brilliant men who wrote it, it is rather to illustrate the fact that I think those men meant for the story to remain unwritten so that as times change, the document, the government, and the country could change with them and fill in new parts of the tapestry that is the American story. Not only through the amendment process did they leave the door open for the fact that they didn’t have all the answers nor the ability to predict the future, but also in what they left out, so that we could adapt our government and laws to the ever-changing times.

The first page of the U.S. Constitution (courtesy of the National Archives)

The framers were very intentional in how they structured the government and set up a system of checks and balances; so too were they very intentional in what they did not specifically enumerate in the Constitution as they were counting on future elected officials and the courts to interpret those aspects of it that were either not politically expedient or socially acceptable to specifically mention or deal with in 1787.  The Constitution is a living document that is meant to be interpreted as times change and the framers intended for it to be that way. And to those that would argue otherwise, I would say that all you have to do is look at how both sides of the gun control issue interpret the 2nd Amendment today.  No matter our beliefs, we all interpret the Constitution to justify our positions on issues. Corporations are people or they’re not, depends on who you ask. I’ll leave you to decide.

So, as Constitution Day comes to a close, I’d ask you to think about one question: how much and in what way do you think the Constitution will be amended in the coming century, if at all?  Feel free to post your ideas. If you are interested in learning more about the Constitution, here are some outstanding online resources:

National Archives

National Constitution Center

Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier