Today is Constitution Day, a day that our nation can celebrate the delegates signing the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
More than 11 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, our nation was floundering financially and struggling to maintain unity. The Revolutionary War had racked up significant debts for the nation, but the federal government had no ability to levy taxes to force states to pay those debts under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution served as a means to form a stronger central government for the purposes laid out in its preamble — to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
Sept. 17 was both a beginning and an end — for the preceding 3 1/2 months, the 55 delegates to the convention met for hours a day, six days a week, in session in Philadelphia. In the evenings, the delegates often met informally or in committees formed to make the process more manageable. After Sept. 17, delegates Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, along with John Jay, wrote and published the 85 Federalist Papers under the collective pseudonym “Publius” to promote its ratification by the states. Those papers did things such as warn against factions, defend the checks and balances outlined in Constitution, argue for a strong executive, and explain the character of a democratic republic. The Constitution wasn’t ratified until June 21, 1788, and wasn’t unanimously adopted by the states until 1790.
The Constitution was — and is — an imperfect document. It allowed for enslaved persons to be counted as three-fifths of a person, protected the slave trade and failed to deliver on Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal.” But where the Constitution lacked perfection, it made up for it in its malleability. Article V of the Constitution allows for the amendment process — initially used to amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, and subsequently used to fundamentally change the country with the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment providing for due process and incorporating the Bill of Rights to apply to state law, the 14th, 19th, and 26th amendments providing suffrage for all citizens over the ages of 18, and, most recently, the 27th Amendment delaying congressional salary increases until the following election. The amendment process gives power to the people to determine what changes we need to make to the foundation of our government.
By its nature, the Constitution is set up to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. A bill only can become a law after being passed by a bicameral legislature and signed by a president chosen through the Electoral College. One body of that legislature was to be imminently responsive to the citizens, which is why we hold elections every other year to choose our House of Representatives. The other body (Senate) was designed to be more deliberative, smaller and responsive to the needs of the individual states. These were balanced by a judiciary, composed of judges with lifetime appointments to decide questions of fact and not to make law. All of this is deliberately calculated to protect minority interests and not allow the judiciary to interpret a “living constitution” to the whims of whatever constitutes the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Learning the history and the detail of the Constitution is imperative for us to secure those blessings of liberty not only to ourselves, but to our posterity.
Another country’s constitution guarantees “inviolability of the person, and the home, and privacy of correspondence” alongside universal free health care, protection for the environment and free education through college — all of which sounds wonderful, but that is found in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of South Korea. Learning about our Constitution allows the document and our liberty to persevere and protects it from becoming mere words on paper.
Will Lynch is the Newton County prosecuting attorney.