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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

“Do We Need the Constitution?”

May 01, 2020 - 4 minute read


The debate was settled more than two hundred thirty years ago when, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth of thirteen States to ratify it…or so we thought.  That very question was boldly splashed across the cover of Harper’s Magazine in October 2019.  The article itself was titled “Constitution in Crisis: Has America’s Founding Document Become the Nation’s Undoing?” It featured five “participants,” a former member of Congress and several law professors, in a discussion addressing this most vital question.  To say the least, the Constitution did not fare very well.

In addition to one participant referring to “the fraudulent nature of the Constitution” and asserting that “every word of the Constitution – starting from this premise of ‘we the people’ - is a lie,”  another participant posits that the Constitution should be thought of as “poetry” rather than a “legal document.”  Perhaps, one said, we don’t even need a constitution; after all, “New Zealand…and the United Kingdom [are] just fine.”

Fortunately, the Constitution, so maligned in this discussion, includes the First Amendment - guaranteeing (guaranteeing, not granting) the rights of free of speech, freedom of the press and the right of the people to peaceably assemble – the rights the five “participants” freely exercised in their discussion. 

 As much as I disagree with many of the opinions laid out in Harper’s cover story, I ardently defend their proponents’ right to express them.  After all, that is what freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas are all about.   However, what disturbs me more than this assault on the Constitution is the lack of historical understanding of the Constitution, its purpose, and underlying principles by the American people. 

Numerous reports by social science research organizations and others have consistently reported the decline in civic literacy in the United States.  As recently as the summer of 2019, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation completed an exhaustive survey of all fifty states and Washington, D. C., using the 20-question multiple-choice test on the practice exam for the test all immigrants must pass to be granted U. S. citizenship.  The people of only one state – Vermont – passed the test.  California ranked a dismal 31st.   (Coincidentally, California was the 31st State added to the Union.)

Reducing, in many cases eliminating classroom instruction in public schools about our nation’s founding and its founding documents is part of the problem.  Lack of public curiosity and alienation from public policy decision-making surely contribute to civic illiteracy as well.  Yet thousands of books, games, on-line courses, and other resources are easily accessible to anyone who, like me, is alarmed by this current state of affairs and its continued decline.  

Our Founders were not perfect, but they engaged creatively and courageously in an experiment never before attempted.  It was based on more than the circumstances of the time in which they lived; it was based on a prescient understanding of human nature and the belief that man is capable of self-government.  How to construct such a government was not obvious.  The debate before, during and after the Constitutional Convention was contentious.  Disagreement was the order of the day for nearly four months as these men assembled in a hot, humid government building in Philadelphia.  But in the end, they produced a Constitution - which was then vigorously debated in conventions in each of the thirteen States.  

It is to our great benefit that we have a vast array of records summarizing and explaining those debates -  the notes James Madison kept during the Constitutional Convention; newspaper articles; broadsides; letters authored by advocates on both sides of the issues; official records of State Ratifying Conventions; and other documents.  

To be sure, this great debate was not confined to altruistic views of mankind, nor did it appeal solely to our “better angels.”  There were practical and often selfish interests at play – big states v. small states, supporters of slavery and abolitionists, commercial v. agrarian interests, use of lands in the West, navigation rights and other parochial interests.  In the end, compromises were struck, and a framework of government was proposed.  Opponents of the Constitution demanded and secured a Bill of Rights, completing the great work.   

On the centennial of its ratification, William Gladstone, one of England’s great prime ministers, paid tribute, “The American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”  Was he right, or is the Constitution a “lie” and a “fraud?”  Was it once great but now outdated?  

The Constitutional Convention began its deliberations on May 25, 1787, more than a week later than scheduled.  It adjourned on September 17, forwarding the proposed constitution to the Confederation Congress meeting in the city of New York.  In a humble effort to contribute to an understanding of the Constitution, this blog will trace the Convention, day by day, summarizing the debate, often rancorous and acrimonious, which led to creating the world’s oldest and most imitated framework for a people to govern themselves.


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