Sept. 17 — tomorrow — is Constitution Day.
On Sept. 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was finally ratified by a majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. A few days later, the states, “in Congress assembled,” started wrangling over whether they might strangle the thing in its cradle, so to speak, by censuring the delegates for creating a new form of government. (They had been charged with revising the Articles of Confederation.)
Cooler heads prevailed (or viciously muscled the opposition, depending on who you read) and the document was passed on to the states for ratification. I have always wondered if we might better celebrate Sept. 26 and 27 as it would not only give us a dual holiday to talk about the Constitution and drink beer and so on, but it would also celebrate the “first undeniably sane act of self-denial by the U.S. Congress” as well. I guess the title was too long.
Be that as it may, the long hot summer of 1787 had been brutal in those days before AC (and well within the days of wool wigs for men), but it yielded up one of the simplest, enduring and important pieces of political theory to emerge in the modern era.
It was uncomfortable in Philadelphia, not just because of the weather, which we hear was unnaturally hot.
There were also, according to James Madison, who was there, swarms of biting black flies. The food was horrible. They slept with windows closed against the flies in seamy, smelly boarding houses. It is fashionable in paintings (painted later, by contented parties who did not attend) to show the delegates gathered pleasantly around a central document, in accord and sympathy with all of its various articles, happily preparing to sign the thing and to send it off, probably accompanied by a heavenly choir and at least one operatic voice belting out “Yankee Doodle”. No.
These were Americans.
Which meant that they disagreed. They disputed. They yelled. They argued over tiny points of law and giant issues of politics. They jostled to be heard on their regional issues and taxation. They ground each other down until all were exhausted, then returned to do it all again the next day.
This went on from May to September. Delegates left, came back, struggled; they could agree on some things and violently divide on others. It was not a pretty sight.
Ben Franklin, oldest of the delegates, whined in frustration: “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member doubt a little of his own infallibility.” George Washington, who headed up the show as its president, was resigned. Looking ahead, he worried that even if the gathered delegates could agree in some way, “[i]t is too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted.”
In the end, it worked out.
The final accord — and the process that led up to it — has been called the “Miracle at Philadelphia.” But that, like so many of the myths of the constitutional period, is hogwash.
There was no “miracle." The Constitution was, like so many American “miracles” of the past 231 years, the product of deep thinking, heavy debate and the hardest work imaginable. And, like the others, it was a success. A success, but not without continued thinking, debate and hard work. The U.S. Constitution established, as Franklin (somewhat ominously) told an onlooker, “a Republic, if you can keep it.”
“Constitution Day” began with legislation in 2004 by Sens. Robert Byrd and Fritz Hollings. Attached to an omnibus spending bill, it designated September 17th as a day to honor the U.S. Constitution that “mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions, and all federal agencies, provide educational programming on the United States Constitution on that day.”
It seemed to them that out of 365 days of political squabbling, we could focus, one day, to learn why this messy stuff called “democracy” is even tolerated. I agree.
Political scientists divide the world of politics into “institutions” and “behaviors.” The Constitution forms the framework — the institution — that guides, funnels and relieves the stresses of uncountable competing interests — the behaviors — in a nation that values individual interests as no other.
Constitution Day is a great tradition here at my home institution. It is organized, each year, by our first-year students after only a few weeks together. They dispute, they argue, they disagree, but in the end, it all works out.
Join us in celebrating this wonderful charter of freedom.
R. Bruce Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.