September 18, 2012 § 2 Comments
It was 225 years ago this week, on September 17, 1787, that the Constitution of the United States was adopted and sent to the various states for ratification. It would take three years after that to achieve ratification by the requisite nine states.
The convention, which met in secret in the Pennsylvania State House, took 100 days to produce what is the organic law of our nation. That three and a half months was filled with drama, rancor, conflict, backroom negotiations and masterful compromise.
Of the fifty-five delegates who were elected to the convention 34 were lawyers, 8 had signed the Declaration of Independence, and almost half were Revolutionary War veterans. The remaining members were planters, educators, ministers, physicians, financiers, judges and merchants. About a quarter of them were large land owners and all of them held some type of public office (39 were former Congressmen and 8 were present or past governors).
Of the 55 elected delegates, only forty-two attended most of the meetings, and of those thirty-nine actually signed the Constitution. Nineteen of the members who were chosen to represent their state never attended a meeting, some because their state would not or could not pay their expenses, some due to health, and some for political reasons. Patrick Henry, although elected, refused to attend because he “smelt a rat.” Three members, Edmond Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts refused to sign, primarily due to the lack of a bill of rights.
The durability of the Constitution is itself a marvel. It has been effect for more than 220 years, longer than any other instrument of its kind. And its original form has proven durable as well. Although more than 11,000 amendments have been introduced in Congress, only thirty three have gone to the states to be ratified and only twenty seven have received the necessary approval from the states to actually become amendments to the Constitution.
The genius of the Constitution’s balance of powers and protection of individual rights has long been recognized. Many states and foreign governments emulate the Constitution in their own organic law.
To me, though, the genius of the Constitution lies in how it came about. It was the product of intensive negotiation and clever compromise. No one who came into the convention left with all he wanted to achieve, and everyone had to give some ground. The crafting of this greatest article of law is a model for the way that all law coming in its wake should be crafted.
If you’re looking for an entertaining read on the subject, I recommend David O. Stewart’s The Summer of 1787, a brilliant account of the proceedings and the personalities of the participants.