Friday, September 17, 2010

223 years ago today, 39 delegates signed the new U.S. Constitution

In May 1787 delegates from twelve states gathered in Philadelphia to begin the process of revising the Articles of Confederation (Rhode Island abstained). To ensure a free expression of opinions the proceedings were kept secret, but we know much of what transpired from James Madison’s detailed diary. In the course of often heated exchanges the delegates decided that what the country needed was not to amend the Articles but to design a new framework for the government and draft an entirely new Constitution.

After a long hot summer of debate the forty-two delegates met on Monday, September 17, 1787, with one item on the agenda: to sign the new Constitution. William Jackson, the convention secretary, read the final version. Then Benjamin Franklin rose. Eighty-one years old, he had not missed one session, but he was now too weak and thus handed his prepared speech to his friend James Wilson to deliver. It said, in part:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig'd, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others....

In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administred.... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does....
George Washington’s signature appears at the top. Thirty-eight delegates signed below, state by state, with Jackson witnessing their signatures. Three delegates refused to sign without a Bill of Rights: Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

The Convention then submitted the document to the states for ratification. So began the bitter, sometimes rancorous nationwide fracas (even sparking unruly mob scenes such as the “riot” in Carlisle, PA) chronicled in the two Library of America volumes, The Debate on the Constitution.

According to Article VII of the new document, nine of the thirteen states were required to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect. Delaware was the first to ratify, on December 7, by a unanimous vote (30–0). Federalists vied with antifederalists to lobby state legislators, and elsewhere the votes were often close; in Massachusetts the margin was 187 to 168. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788, and on March 4, 1789, the new national government began operations. Rhode Island was the last of the thirteen states to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

On September 25, 1789, to address the concerns of the antifederalists—a vociferous cross-section of many citizens across the country—about “fundamental principles of human liberty,” James Madison introduced into the First Congress of the United States the Bill of Rights. With Virginia’s ratification on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became the first ten amendments to the Constitution and the law of the land.

Read Wilson Carey McWilliams on how the Constitution reflected a “new science of politics.”

Related LOA works: The Debate on the Constitution (two volumes); James Madison: Writings

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