Months before delegates from twelve of the thirteen States convened in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation, James Madison had already begun preparing proposals for a stronger government to address a wide array of complex issues threatening the very viability of the new nation. In fact, whether the former British colonies could even be considered a nation was doubtful. Delegates invariably used the term “my country” to refer to their own State, not the United States.
Even the pact that bound them together reinforced their independence. The “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” was a mere compact, designed as a “league of friendship…for their common defense, the security of their liberties and their mutual and general welfare.” Although the Articles bound them together for common defense, each State retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence” not expressly delegated to the United States. Moreover, the provision that any substantive decision must be approved unanimously further reinforced the independence and sovereignty of the States.
James Madison was only one of many leaders alarmed at the financial crises looming within and among the States. They were concerned about the ominous specter of armed insurrection foreshadowed by Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts, the reluctance and even refusal of other nations to engage in diplomatic and commercial relations, and threats to liberties secured in a bloody war for independence against the imperial forces of the British Empire. But Madison was dedicated like no other to assuring that the Convention would be held; that George Washington would lend his incomparable presence and credibility to the event; that a thorough record would be maintained (in spite of confidentiality of its proceedings); and that the new Congress would propose a bill of rights.
Indeed, the absence of a bill of rights had been a major obstacle to ratification of the Constitution. Federalists, including Madison, had argued that a bill of rights was unnecessary. Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, refused to support the Constitution without one. During ratification, dozens of amendments had been drafted, including proposals to ensure trial by jury, freedom of the press and other liberties. Even as the new government was organizing, some States, including Virginia and New York, continued to advocate for a second convention to consider amendments.
On May 4, 1789, Madison, having been elected to represent Virginia in the first Congress, announced his intention to bring before Congress “the subject of amendments to the Constitution.” Faithful to his promises to the voters of Virginia and hoping to make the Constitution “as acceptable to the whole people of the United States,” a month later Madison laid before the House of Representatives twenty proposed amendments. Among them were freedom of speech and religion, the right to keep and bear arms, freedom of the press, the right to trial by jury, and others gleaned through a detailed analysis of many suggestions emanating from state ratifying conventions as well as those incorporated in various state constitutions. After a robust debate, seventeen amendments were sent to the Senate for its consideration. Only twelve came back to the House. On September 25, these twelve were sent to the States for ratification.
Because Article V of the Constitution requires three-fourths of the States to approve amendments, the actual number of States needed would depend on the number of States in the Union. North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution and joined the Union on November 21, 1789. Accompanying its ratification were amendments it had proposed the year before. On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island ratified, followed by the admission of Vermont as the 14th State on March 4, 1791.
On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the final State needed for ratification of ten of the twelve proposed amendments. Historically, these are known as the Bill of Rights. Of the two rejected amendments, the first would have capped the size of the House of Representatives. The other prohibited laws varying the compensation for Representatives and Senators from going into effect “until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” Two hundred years later, on May 7, 1992, it was ratified by the State of Michigan, and became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.
The power to amend the Constitution has been a critical element of its durability, affording the people and their elected representatives the capacity to adapt to new challenges and changing circumstances. Amendments have placed term limits on the President, abolished slavery, extended to Congress the power to collect income taxes, and assured that States cannot deny the right to vote based on gender, former condition of servitude, and age (for citizens eighteen years of age or older).
The Constitution of 1789 did not guarantee the success of America. Its people had been divided over the question of separating from Great Britain. Once separation had been achieved, competition and jealousy among the States had compelled them to seek stability and improved cooperation among themselves and common defense from internal as well as external threats. The Constitution was the result of that effort, but the process had been bitterly contested. Its critics at home and abroad predicted its failure. There were no precedents for such an endeavor, no guidebooks to warn of dangers and pitfalls.
Well aware of the nation’s fragile and precarious future, James Madison mused, ”We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” Within days of his inauguration, burdened by the knowledge that every action he would take as the nation’s first President, George Washington sought advice from his Vice President and others concerning presidential conduct. The new Congress routinely debated whether its actions conformed to the Constitution which now governed its own actions and the people of the United States.
For more than 230 years, the Constitution has guided us, surviving civil war, presiding over the abolition of slavery, enduring impeachments, protecting and expanding rights, and serving as the pattern of democracies throughout the world. In 1878, William Gladstone, Britain’s great Prime Minister and statesman, described our Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Why, then, has it come under violent attack in our own time? That question will be addressed in the next, and final, essay in this series.