The Story of the United States Constitution

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Part 1
The U.S. Constitution has the oldest written national framework of government in the world. At the end of the 20th century, there were about 159 other national constitutions in the world, and 101 had been adopted since 1970. While the United States has been governed by a single framework of government for over two centuries, France, in contrast, has had 10 separate and distinct constitutional orders (including five republics, two empires, a monarchy, and two dictatorships). The country of El Salvador has had 36 constitutions since 1824.

Nearly all of the national constitutions now in use bear the marks of the 55 men who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to create the framework of the United States government. Like the U.S. Constitution, they are written constitutions. They also spell out human and civil rights similar to those contained in the U.S. document. A bill of rights is particularly common. The principles of American constitutionalism--the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, a bicameral legislature, and a presidential form of government--were followed by many nations. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 created a governmental framework that has not only lasted two centuries but has served as a model for freedom-loving people all over the world.

Part 2
Yet the Constitution was not handed down from on high. It was the product of the painstaking, halting and often argumentative application of intelligence and experience to problems of governance. The new Constitution was the product of four months of secret negotiations and dozens of compromises.

The framers of the Constitution were all white males. Most were wealthy but not all had started out that way. There were the sons of cobblers, clothiers, blacksmiths, and farmers as well as the sons of wealthy planters. One was Roman Catholic. Thirty had participated in the drafting of state constitutions. Thirty-two were lawyers, though few had attended law schools. Two were college presidents, five were planters, eight were merchants or traders, and three were physicians. About twenty-five owned slaves. Six had served or were serving as governors. Of the fifty-five delegates; two became president; one became vice president; four served in the cabinet; fourteen became senators and five became representatives.

The average age of the delegates was 43. The oldest delegate was Franklin, 81; the youngest, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, 26. James Madison was 36 and Alexander Hamilton just 32. A third had fought in the Revolution. Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence and six had signed the Articles of Confederation. Forty-four of the fifty-five had served in the Continental Congress or in the weak Congress established under the Articles of Confederation.

Most of the delegates were highly educated men, who were fluent in Latin and Greek and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. Washington was embarrassed because he had only five years of formal schooling. But the delegates were also highly practical politicians who knew how to maneuver. Those who opposed the idea of a stronger central government, such as Virginia's Patrick Henry, who said he "smelt a rat," mostly stayed away.

Part 3
The Constitutional Convention took place in the nation's largest and most diverse city. Philadelphia in 1787 had about 40,000 inhabitants. On its streets could be found wealthy Quaker merchants, German-speaking farmers, African-American slaves, and Delaware Indians. Piles of rotten garbage and abandoned animal carcasses also lay in the streets.

Five percent of Philadelphia's citizens owned half its taxable wealth. The city government was a closed corporation whose members chose their own replacements. Meanwhile, more than half of Philadelphia's population existed on the edge of poverty. Prostitution and disease were widespread. Many streets were open sewers. Servants spent their evenings in the taverns of a rough waterfront district called Helltown.

Part 4
The convention was scheduled to begin on May 14, but did not achieve a quorum of delegations from more than half the states until May 25. Eventually there were 12 delegations. Rhode Island boycotted the convention.

On May 25, 1787, delegates from seven states had arrived. A quorum had been achieved and the convention could begin.

The delegates, 55 in all, but never more than 30 or 35 at once, sealed themselves inside a room no bigger than a large schoolroom in Philadelphia's state house. They posted sentries at the doors and windows to keep their "secrets from flying out." They barred the press and public, and took a vow not to reveal to anyone the words spoken. With the doors and windows closed, the little room where the convention met for up to six hours a day, was stiflingly hot. There were speeches that lasted two, three or four hours. The convention took a single break, for 11 days.

Over four months, the delegates hammered out compromises that established a system flexible to withstand more than two centuries of change. The delegates' goals were contradictory: to strengthen the national government and to limit its power.

Part 5
The objective of the Constitution was to create a system of government that would control men's lust for power and safeguard individual liberty. To prevent concentrations of power, the framers established a system of checks and balances. Authority was divided between the federal and state governments and was further divided among the three branches of the federal government.

The framers of the Constitution hoped to weaken the basis of monarchical society. They wanted to eliminate the forms of corruption, such as nepotism and the holding of multiple public offices, which characterized the British government.

Part 6
For nearly four months during a hot, muggy Philadelphia summer, the delegates debated thorny issues:

  • Should the national government be allowed to veto state laws;
  • Should the states be eliminated altogether;
  • Should there be a single president or an executive committee.
Framing the debate was a plan introduced by Edmund Randolph, the governor of Virginia, but actually written by James Madison. The Virginia Plan proposed a national legislature divided into two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

  • Individual voters, not state governments, would elect members of the House of Representatives.
  • Representation in both houses of Congress would be based on population.
  • Members of the House would select members of the Senate (from candidates suggested by state legislatures), judges, and a president, who would serve for seven years.
  • Congress would have the power to veto state laws.

Delegates from small states protested that the Virginia Plan would give larger states too much power in the national government. New Jersey proposed that all states have an equal number of representatives. Under the New Jersey Plan, Congress would consist of only one house, to be elected by the state legislatures, not the people. The New Jersey Plan received support from Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. The Maryland delegation split.

Several of Madison's proposals were defeated. The delegates eliminated a congressional veto over state legislation. They also abandoned his notion of apportioning representation in both houses of the legislature on the basis of population.

Part 7
The Constitution represented compromises, some of which succeeded brilliantly and others that left an enormous burden to the generations that followed.

Over the course of the debates, the delegates reached agreement on certain fundamental principles. They achieved a consensus that in a republican government, power should be divided among three separate branches--legislative, executive, and judicial, a principle enshrined in most state constitutions. They also agreed that:

  • the central government should have direct power to tax;
  • the new House of Representatives should be elected directly by the people;
  • there should be periodic elections;
  • the national government should have the sole power to regulate interstate and foreign trade.

Part 8
The U.S. Constitution created a system of checks and balances and three independent branches of government.

The Legislative Branch
Article I of the Constitution established Congress. The framers of the Constitution expected Congress to be the dominant branch of government. They placed it first in the Constitution and assigned more powers to it than to the presidency. Congress was given "all legislative powers," including the power to raise taxes, coin money, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, promote the sciences and the arts, and declare war.

The Executive Branch
Article II of the Constitution created the presidency. The president's powers were stated more briefly than those of Congress. The president was granted "Executive Power," including the power "with the Advice and Consent of the Senate," to make treaties and appoint ambassadors. The president was also to serve as Commander in Chief of the army and navy.

In delegate James Wilson's view, the presidency was "the most difficult [issue] of all on which we have had to decide." Americans had waged a revolution against a king and did not want concentrated power to appear in another guise. The delegates had to decide whether the chief executive should be one person or a committee; whether the president should be appointed by Congress; and how long the chief executive should serve.

On August 18, 1787, a Pennsylvania newspaper carried a leaked report from the Constitutional Convention. It was the first word on the proceedings that directly quoted a delegate. "We are well informed" of "reports idly circulating, that it is intended to establish a monarchical government.... Tho' we cannot, affirmatively, tell you what we are doing, we can, negatively, tell you what we are not doing--we never once thought of a king."
The conflict with royal governors had made the public deeply distrustful of powerful executives. Alexander Hamilton argued for a chief executive to be given broad powers and elected for life. Edmund Randolph of Virginia thought executive power should not be put into the hands of a single person since a single executive would be "the fetus of monarchy."

To ensure a check on presidential power, Congress was given the power to override a presidential veto and to impeach and remove a president. Congress alone was given the power to declare war.

The Judicial Branch
Article III of the Constitution established a Supreme Court.

The Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court. Over the years the designated size of the Supreme Court has varied between six, seven, nine, and even ten members. Nor does the Constitution explicitly grant the courts the power of judicial review--to determine whether legislation is consistent with the Constitution.

Today, no other country makes as much use of judicial review as the United States. Many of our society's policies on racial desegregation, criminal procedure, abortion, and school prayer are the product of court decisions. The concept of judicial review was initially established on the state level and in the debates over the ratification of the Constitution.
In contrast to Britain, American judges do not wear wigs. When the Supreme Court held its first session in 1790, one justice did arrive wearing a wig. But the public expressed derision at wig wearing, and the justice decided that republican judges should not wear wigs.

Voting Rights
The Constitution included no property qualifications for voting or officeholding like those found in the state constitutions drafted between 1776 and 1780. In a republican society, officeholding was supposed to reflect personal merit, not social rank.

The Constitution did not bar anyone from voting. It only said that voting for members of the House of Representatives should be the same in each state as that state's requirements for voting for the most numerous branch of the legislature. In order words, qualifications for voting were left to the individual states. The New Jersey constitution allowed women to vote if they met the same property requirements as men.

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