Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day! - September 17, 1787

 It was on this day in 1787 that the Constitutional Convention adopted The Constitution of the United States, which (after ratification by the states) became the nation’s supreme governing document on March 4, 1789.
September 17th is also called Citizenship Day, the day on which most immigrants are officially sworn in as new U.S. citizens. Although Constitution Day and Citizenship Day have been separately observed in various states (and on different dates) for about 100 years, “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” set as September 17th, became as a legal federal observance, with legislation championed by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) in 2004.

The Articles of Confederation, an agreement among the colonies drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, served as an intermediate governing document for the new nation while it struggled for independence. After the war, the Articles were found to be woefully inadequate, and the states agreed that a constitution that would serve the nation well into the foreseeable future was in order. The Constitutional Convention, made up of 55 delegates from all thirteen states, convened in the early summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, and began work.

During those summer months, the Convention crafted this document, with long hours of wrangling debate and discourse over the best way for our new nation to govern itself.  They stifled in the heat because the windows were usually kept closed. If they were open, passersby on the street, pausing to listen, often couldn’t resist climbing into the room and disturbing the delegates with their two-cents’ worth.

George Mason, by Boudet, 1811
These delegates, made up of citizens from every walk of life – rich and poor, merchant and planter, clergy and barrister – sacrificed much of themselves for the benefit of their country. They strove mightily to conceive a system that would protect and represent the citizens as individuals, and provide for federal necessities greater than those which individual states could provide, such as a standing army or foreign policy.

They deliberately set standards that would not favor specific individuals, interests, or situations, seeking a balance that would stand the test of time. They wanted a governing document that did not have to be changed all the time. For when change was necessary, they established measures which require careful and extensive thought and debate from all angles, to make sure that changes designed to solve one problem do not generate more problems.  They strove for a system that applied equally, no matter how the nation developed, as cultural, political, and economic systems fluctuated. They designed the Constitution to regulate these fluctuations, not be regulated by them.

As soon as the Convention adopted it, Virginia delegate George Mason objected that it did not address major issues of importance to protect the American citizen with further federal checks and balances, such as the freedoms of speech and religious pursuit, and the right to bear arms. He proposed a Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the Constitution, and refused to endorse the Constitution until such rights were adopted. Since he was not a member of Congress, he pushed James Madison to support the legislation required to enact these amendments as part of the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s first ten amendments, ratified by ten states, went into effect on December 15, 1791.

This document’s resilience is remarkable. Time and again, it proves applicable to issues of the present as readily as to issues of the past. Is it a perfect document? No. Nothing better, however, has ever been offered to any people anywhere. It includes measures for amendments to rectify some of its flaws, and many amendments have been added to the original Bill of Rights.

Those who object to it either haven’t studied it, or refuse to acknowledge the foresight of those who wrote it. (The document's existence gives objectors the right to object!) Those who choose to interpret it to suit an agenda deny the careful and thoughtful work of those delegates, who wrestled with issues as vital today as in 1787. It behooves us to remember that these were intelligent, educated men, who wrote what they meant, and meant what they wrote, with a surprisingly discerning eye far beyond their own cultural, social, economic, and political limitations.

Who are we to second-guess them?