Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

U.S. Constitution Approved 235 Years Ago

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard F. Keevey
September 9, 2022

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 played a critical role in our nation’s history and evolution. This September 2022 marks the 235th anniversary of the approval of the Constitution of the United States, a document that has stood the test of time and served as a model for numerous countries. The U.S. Constitution was ultimately ratified on June 21, 1788, and the resulting government became operational on March 4, 1789. The journey that produced the U.S. Constitution was not easy and it primarily reflects the vision, efforts and enlightened leadership of a resolute group of four patriots—Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison and George Washington.

Background

By the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, and until 1789, the country was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which was at best a loose group of sovereign states and at its worst a tenuous confederation, with each state jealously protecting its own prerogatives. The Continental Congress rarely convened and had no power to tax or regulate interstate commerce. It could not conduct an effective foreign policy, nor eliminate the war debt. The country, such that it was, teetered on the verge of losing the democracy that was set in motion on July 4, 1776. In his book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, Joseph Ellis describes the actions of four men embarking on the arduous task to save what they had fought for in the Revolutionary War.

Meeting as a group, Hamilton, Jay and Madison diagnosed the dysfunctions of the Articles of Confederation, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, successfully orchestrated the debates and then set an agenda to encourage the Continental Congress to establish a new Constitution. One could certainly argue this group conducted the most creative and consequential act of political leadership.

The group quickly realized they could not execute this ‘revolutionary plan’ to replace the Articles unless they had the support and leadership of George Washington. Washington was the only man who, based on his reputation and integrity, could lead their ideas to fulfillment. His participation would be indispensable.

Hamilton was selected to approach Washington as he had been Washington’s aide-de-camp, one of the lead commanders at the determinant battle of Yorktown and (as his associates knew) Washington’s favorite. Washington was well-aware of the shortcomings of the Articles and knew that the special interests of the individual states would always limit the common good of the country. Still, Washington was reluctant as he felt the time was not right, that his day was done and was concerned that his reputation would be tarnished if they failed. Hamilton prevailed, and Washington joined the group of patriots and presided over the convention’s efforts to chart a new government.

The many battles and details of the convention are intriguing. For example, the quartet went well beyond the mandate of the convention, whose direction was simply to alter and address the shortcomings of the Articles—not develop an entire new charter, which they successfully accomplished. A personal view—only Washington could have lead this endeavor to a successful conclusion just as he did in the long seven-year war for independence. Certainly, the man for all seasons.

Outcome

Today, we know the specifics of their victory—a tripartite structure, a strong executive, a bi-cameral legislative body with proportional representation (at least in one house) and an independent judiciary. Debates hovered on three key issues: the shift in sovereignty from the states to a nation; the conflict between large and small states over representation; and sectional tensions over slavery.

The final resolution, while not fully meeting the goals of the quartet and their federalist supporters,  nonetheless was a major victory. However, the actions of the convention still needed to be ratified by at least nine of the 13 states. The ratification process was lengthy, and approval was not assured as various influential groups emerged to oppose the draft constitution.

To counteract the opponents Alexander Hamilton planned, organized and arranged for the writing of the famous “Federalist Papers.” Hamilton, Madison and Jay authored these essays to support the ratification and to serve as a debater’s handbook during the controversies. Hamilton wrote 51 articles, Madison 29 and Jay five.

Conclusions

The contents of the Federalist Papers, especially several of Madison’s thoughts, reflect their informed anticipation and understanding of future events. For example, consider the following three insightful statements: “the biggest threat to governments is factions and interest groups,” “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” and “if men were angels, government would be unnecessary.” These concerns were quite prescient at the time and remain so today.

The Constitution was approved on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify. Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island were the final states to ratify. After much debate, the Bill of Rights was approved on Dec. 15, 1791, as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution to guarantee personal freedoms and rights. Although seventeen other amendments have subsequently been made to the U.S. Constitution over the years, the basic content and structure remain remarkably like that which emerged from the Constitutional Convention. The document is a testament to self-government, for which we as Americans owe a huge debt of thanks to those four patriots.


Author: Richard F. Keevey held two presidential appointments as the chief financial officer of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and as the deputy undersecretary for the US Department of Defense. He was appointed as State Budget Director by two NJ governors from each political party. He is currently a senior policy fellow at Rutgers University, and a lecturer at Princeton University.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.