Archive for Thursday, September 23, 2010

A living document born

September 23, 2010

Question: What happened on Sept. 17, 1787?

Hint: We still benefit from the event today although there remains controversy about exactly what it meant.

Answer: The final draft of our Constitution was signed in Philadelphia.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have known the answer before I read a great book this summer entitled “The Summer of 1787, the Men Who Invented the Constitution,” by David O. Stewart. The book gave me an appreciation for the struggles of those who framed the Constitution. They were intelligent, motivated and not above compromising to get the job done. The final document was the result of a tedious, tension-filled summer of work.

The Articles of Confederation, which was the first document setting forth rules for the new nation, was weak. There was no federal taxation, military, tariffs or any cooperation between the colonies in general. It was obvious that the existing system wasn’t going to work and federal leaders called a convention to discuss new rules.

The delegates gathered in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 to begin their work. They made their task more difficult by meeting in a closed room with the windows shut tightly. In addition, the fashion of the day was long-sleeved shirts, frock coats with vests and neckties. When summer temperatures neared the century mark, the meeting was stifling and very stuffy.

In those days speeches were lengthy and were delivered in a pompous and bombastic manner. Some speeches were six to eight hours in length. Certainly boredom was a daily challenge. They assigned work to committees and once they settled on the makeup of the committees, work began to progress.

Much of their trouble stemmed from two areas: slavery and representation. The bigger colonies wanted representation in the legislative branch to be based on population while smaller colonies wanted one or two votes each. The southern colonies demanded slavery be protected while northern colonies angrily opposed slavery. Finally, the issue was set aside and would not be settled until the Civil War, some 80 years later.

When it came to representation, one of the solutions almost seemed humorous. After a lot of angry rhetoric, it was determined to count male slaves as three fifths of a person, which gave larger representation to southern colonies. Of course slaves couldn’t vote anyway so the idea seems ludicrous. What it did was give Virginia more representation in Congress than Pennsylvania, which had about the same non-slave population.

Many of the framers of the Constitution doubted that the common man had the intelligence to cast a vote. They came up with a great compromise — a two-level legislature. The House of Representatives was directly elected. House members in turn elected members of the Senate. This compromise led to a major problem that we face today. Voters cast ballots for electors who formed the electoral college. These men then elected the president. Three times in our history we have elected a president who did not win the popular vote. These were Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000. All three men had more electoral votes than their opponents.

Certainly the Constitution wasn’t perfect. Yet, it set the framework for the greatest country on Earth. The men who put the Constitution together struggled, battled and compromised during record-setting heat. They were determined to finish the task and create a nation that remains a beacon for the entire world. It is a living document that has changed many times over the years but the basic format remains. It was a phenomenal challenge created by men of foresight who wanted the best future for the fledgling nation.

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