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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.

The Present

January 03, 2022 - 5 minute read

Becoming America

If anyone can be identified as an eyewitness, indeed an involved participant, in the birth of the United States as an independent, sovereign nation, it is John Adams. Although he defended British soldiers charged with killing Americans during the Boston Massacre, he devoted his life to the cause of American independence as a patriot, ambassador, author of the constitution of Massachusetts, vice president and president of the United States.

Writing to his old friend Thomas McKean in 1813, Adams reflected on his country’s history, concluding that “about a third of the people of the colonies were against the revolution.” Perhaps two thirds had been for it. Even now, in 1813 during the presidency of James Madison, Adams observed, “are not two thirds of the nation now with the administration?” In short, Adams concluded, “Divided we have ever been and ever must be.”

During the War for Independence, a sizable portion of the people remained loyal to the British. Anti-Federalists vigorously opposed ratification of the Constitution. During Adams’s own administration the country was bitterly divided, prompting Adams to impose restrictions on freedom of speech and the press. Slavery so divided the nation that only a civil war could resolve the ultimate questions of union and whether men could be considered the property of other men. Through all of this and more, the Constitution reigned as the ultimate authority to which those elected to represent us are sworn to uphold.

Much is to be admired in the form of government embodied in the Constitution: separation of powers into three branches of government; checks and balances restraining each branch from exercising too much power; independence of the executive and judicial branches; division of powers between a national and individual state governments; limiting the national government to those enumerated in the Constitution, and government of law, not of men.

The Constitution did not establish “rule by the majority.” Rather, it embodies a structure and processes requiring multiple majorities at various stages in the act of governing. Each branch of government has the authority to prevent actions by the other branches and is required to work with other branches. For example, enacting law requires approval by a majority of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The President may sign or veto the bill; if vetoed, the House and Senate may override veto by a two-thirds vote. The House has the sole power of impeachment, but the Senate has the sole power to try impeachments. Congress has the power to declare war, but the President prosecutes the war as commander-in-chief. The legislative branch makes law, but the judicial branch can declare those laws to be unconstitutional. The Constitution itself may be amended, but only in a process involving both the federal Congress and individual states. In short, ours is a government which diffuses rather consolidates power, forcing collaboration and compromise among those elected by the people to govern.

To assure fundamental rights would be guaranteed in the Constitution, the first Congress proposed twelve amendments. Ten were ratified by the states and became known as the Bill of Rights. Among these are the freedoms of the press, speech, assembly, petitioning government, religious belief and exercise, due process of law, and trial by jury. These rights not only protect individuals; they also assure that the opinions of minorities may eventually become majority opinions. They facilitate the “marketplace of ideas,” the free flow and competition of beliefs and opinions which formulate public policy.

In Federalist 51 James Madison noted that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” but because government is “administered by men over men, you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” Madison clearly recognized the need for government. Just as clearly he understood that government is composed of human beings who are flawed and, therefore, restraints must be placed on government itself.

No other nation has recognized and protected the freedom of its people as has the United States under its Constitution. Nevertheless, our nation is divided; for some the object of their ire is the Constitution. To our national shame, the level of civic literacy among our citizenry is appallingly deficient. According to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 2019, the people of only one state, Vermont, were able to pass a simple civics survey using questions from the test all immigrants must pass before being granted citizenship. Moreover, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni report that only eighteen percent of American colleges and universities require even one course in American government or history to graduate. Ignorance begets apathy and stokes the flames of incivility. Our Constitution and system of government are based on “We the People.” But how can “We the People” exercise our responsibilities if we are ignorant of our own Constitution?

This series of essays is intended to educate and inform, hopefully to inspire, and even entertain. It has relied primarily on original sources including those found in Founders Online through the National Archives; Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and The Avalon Project at the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale Law School.

Among hundreds of books bringing life to the history and meaning of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the men who drafted them, and the issues confronting them are Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen; 1787: The Grand Convention by Clinton Rossiter; Ratification by Pauline Maier; The Summer of 1787 by David O. Stewart; The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich; and The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.

Additional online resources include The National Archives; Teaching American History; The National Constitution Center; The Bill of Rights Institute; and Constitution Facts. Most important, read the Constitution. It belongs to you.

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