The U.S. Constitutional Convention: A peaceful revolution that transformed America

The U.S. Constitutional Convention: A peaceful revolution that transformed America

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“The Convention at Philadelphia, 1787,” Engraving, by Frederick Juengling and Alfred Kappes

SAN JOSE, July 28, 2014 —  The period in American history after the War for Independence was a time in which the infant nation was struggling to survive under the government established by the Articles of Confederation. The people had a sense of pride in the newly born nation, but the United States of America was not really ‘one nation under God’ at that time. The government under the Articles of Confederation was considered too feeble to ensure the survival of the new United States of America past the age of puberty. The new government was indeed in danger, and it would soon be destroyed. A second American Revolution occurred as that ‘provisional’ government was overthrown and replaced with “a more perfect Union.”

The U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation resembled more the assembly of nations linked through the current European Union than the U.S. government that was created by the Constitution. As Article II of the Articles of Confederation was written: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States…” The name of the U.S. could very well have been replaced with the designation of the ‘European Union.’ Article III of the Confederation stated: “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other… etc.”

That arrangement may have been stronger than today’s European Union. The 13 infant states were joined by mutual agreement and cooperated with one another when it suited them. However, the ones who were paying attention to events beyond basic self-interests and the enlightened visionaries worried whether the new United States of America could survive and honestly actualize the ‘perpetual union’ of the Confederation. The visionaries recognized that this nation, under the existing government could have a very short life span if the U.S. remained under the guidance of that foundation of law. The new nation had indeed been created at great cost, but it remained weak, and vulnerable to collapse. Yet, a majority of the states did not see the value of sending delegates to Annapolis, Maryland in 1786 to improve the Articles.

Many Americans changed their minds about the government after Shays Rebellion during the winter of 1786 – 87 that sent a wake-up call to other concerned citizens and patriots that the government needed to be strengthened. Before this dramatic effort to save Massachusetts’ farmers from losing their land to foreclosure, the basic attitude toward the government under the Articles of Confederation was simple: ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ Yet, after this regional rebellion was ended by state militia, another attempt to improve the Articles was made with the call to delegates to gather in Philadelphia to discuss changes to the cornerstone of the Union. So, patriots from all the states met in the summer of 1787, in Philadelphia, to ‘repair’ the infant nation. To lead this revolution, the delegates elected George Washington.

If an open-minded student of history can look at the Constitutional Convention for what it essentially accomplished, it can then be viewed as a peaceful and reasoned revolution to replace the existing government. In this light, it needs to be understood that there was little malicious intent in the Founders’ purpose. The Convention essentially became an assembly to complete the work that had begun ten years earlier via the Confederation; it was an undertaking to ensure that the foundation of freedom that had been established during the War for Independence could endure in a world where such freedom did not substantially exist. Ironically, the basic job description of the delegates was to focus on improving the Articles and not to thrash the existing government. Yet, the Constitutional Convention succeeded in dismantling and transforming the old government in a deliberate, thoughtful, and peaceful revolution.

The perceived need for a stronger, more perfect government motivated concerned people within the U.S. to take such radical action. Although the word radical today is often synonymous with violence, that word cannot always be linked with violence. This episode in U.S, history is an example. The Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention were radical in their ideas and in their actions. The very action of taking apart the foundation of an existing government and replacing it with a much different government was extremely radical. Even more radical was the reality that the men in Philadelphia wrote into the Constitution the process whereby the document they produced would become the law of the land, which involved a sincere process of ratification by the people, which eventually implemented the U.S. Constitution, and crafted “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

After hammering out the Constitution in the hot summer months in Philadelphia, an even more radical effort that showed up was that the Founding Fathers had the audacity to doubt conceptions of their infallibility by entrusting their finished document to the people in the various states to accept and approve or dismiss their hard work. For the most part, it was not acceptable to those in the ratifying conventions. Especially ironic was that while James Madison’s Virginia Plan was the most acceptable of the various proposed methods of improving the Articles of Confederation during the Convention, the newly written Constitution was not even acceptable to the leaders in Virginia as it was considered for ratification. The ultimate stumbling block became the absence of a Bill of Rights. In many parts of the U.S. there was a serious outcry that without a Bill of Rights there would be no ratification.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as minister to France at the time and had carried on regular correspondence with James Madison during and after the Constitutional Convention, expressed his serious disagreement with the absence of a bill of rights. In a letter to Madison dated December 20, 1787, Jefferson stated that “… a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse…” Jefferson advocated such a bill of rights should include “… freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact…” In the end, Madison went back to work to draft such a document to ensure the survival of individual freedoms in a world filled with tyranny.

In essence, as a result of the demand for a bill of rights, the concept that the Constitution could be amended was a radical move as well. The Founders believed that the U.S. Constitution was not written in stone, and could be altered from time to time depending upon the needs of the people. This demonstrated that the Founders not only sent their precious work out to the people for approval, they trusted their descendants with such precious freedoms. There is a story about Benjamin Franklin that upon the completion of the Constitutional Convention, a woman named Mrs. Powel approached Franklin on the street in Philadelphia and asked: “‘What type of government have you delegates given us?’ To which he replied, ‘A republic, madam, if you can keep it.’” In reality, the United States is a nation that is predicated upon the value of the rule of law, and it is based upon the principle that government is primarily necessary in order to secure the individual rights of the people, and it is the consent of those governed that provides the government its basis of power. Radical!

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