We’re in the final weeks of a presidential campaign in which both major-party candidates have talked about amending the U.S. Constitution.
Not so fast. Changes to our Constitution should be made only after the most serious national discussion and deliberation, not on a political whim.
We should remember this on September 17, the 229th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in Philadelphia.
During those 229 years just 27 amendments have been added to the Constitution. Eleven of those 27 amendments, including the first 10 – which we know as the Bill of Rights – were proposed by the First United States Congress in 1789 and ratified two years later.
The 27th Amendment, prohibiting any change in congressional salaries during the congressional term in which the increase is approved, was part of the original Bill of Rights, but wasn’t ratified until 1992. One amendment, the 18th – concerning the prohibition of alcohol – was adopted in 1919 and later repealed, in 1933, by the 21st amendment.
In the last several generations, we have done increasingly less to educate rising citizens about American history. If they understood more they would understand the wisdom of the Constitution and would be in no hurry to change it.
Delegates from 12 of the 13 original United States met for three months in the summer of 1787 to produce what has been called the “Miracle in Philadelphia.” But when the delegates signed it on that day, the Constitution’s future was unclear.
The Constitution had to be approved by nine of the 13 states to be ratified. It was not sent back to the State Legislatures for approval, but instead to the people, who held votes to send representatives to state ratifying conventions. The Constitution was not to establish a government of the states; it was setting up a government of the people.
What followed was a long, nine-month battle between the Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who opposed it, over the need for the federal government the Constitution created.
Anti-Federalists argued, broadly speaking, that the Constitution granted too much power to the federal government and, at a minimum, needed to include a Bill of Rights to check the national government’s power. Famous founders such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee advocated these views.
The Federalists argued that a more energetic federal government was needed to make up for the deficiencies of the previous government, created by the Articles of Confederation. They argued that the Constitution itself – with its complex system of checks and balances – would serve the purpose of a Bill of Rights. The Federalists included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Roger Sherman, among others.
At the end of the nine-month battle, the Federalists prevailed, and the Constitution was ratified. But as part of the compromise, James Madison proposed a Bill of Rights in the First Congress.
This debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was one of the most important political debates in American history. To understand the Constitution, you must not only understand how our government works, which you can learn by reading the Constitution, you must also understand why our government works this way. You learn that by reading what was said during the Constitutional Convention and ratification debates.
The Constitution that the founders bequeathed us – that “Miracle in Philadelphia” – is a document that has brought stability to American politics. It created a republic – a union of states that guarantees liberty and equality, as declared in the Declaration of Independence, in which power resides with the people. This is something that had never successfully been done in history.
Is it perfect? No. The authors of the Constitution themselves wrote in the preamble that they were creating a “more perfect union,” not a perfect union.
The Constitution affects all of us, every day of our lives. We should be talking about it far more than we do. At a minimum, we should take a little time on Constitution Day to honor and celebrate it.
Roger Beckett is executive director of the nonpartisan Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio (www.ashbrook.org), which provides educational programs for students and teachers on U.S. government and history.