A strange thing happened on the way to the Constitutional Convention 234 years ago this summer. Honestly, several strange things happened, which may help us today – and they happened at the Convention. Independence was fresh in 1787, debts high, a premium on defining the future.
At the Convention in Philadelphia, attendees were – by modern standards – tough. Frankly, life was tough. The average life expectancy, lest we forget, was 38. The recent war over, the country had just survived smallpox, an epidemic with a 30 percent death rate. Still, they showed up.
The original plan was to devise a plan for settling interstate trade disputes. That idea was hatched at a convention in Annapolis, 1786. But between invite and commencement, cocoon went butterfly, and everything changed.
Rather than tweak the Articles of Confederation, built around inviolate states’ rights, the idea of a full-blown Constitution took wing. Attendees realized, with foresight and reluctance, several powerful truths.
Without a federal constitution, interstate conflicts would multiply, foreign adversaries would prey on divided colonies, and the moment of post-revolutionary unity might pass.
They got it done.
But that is a bit too blithe, as it was not that simple. To get the Constitution ratified, James Madison and a vocal group of forward thinkers realized, a Bill of Rights would be necessary.
Interestingly, a motion to include a Bill of Rights was defeated that summer – only resuscitated when Madison’s foresight proved true. They needed one to get full buy-in a constitution with three branches, separation of powers.
Why was a Bill of Rights needed, and why was that motion – funny enough – defeated at the original Convention? The guarantee of core rights was needed because some people, Madison included, wondered if a federal government might – someday – get too big for its britches, try to squash liberties. Ironically, the idea was defeated at the original Convention – in 1787 – because most thought the idea preposterous. They thought since the federal government would only get “enumerated” rights, all was well. They would never seek to aggregate power, step on states’ rights, squash the individual.
Thankfully, Madison and others pushed the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, which lives to protect us today. Value-free speech, exercise of religion, assembly, press, right to keep and bear arms, freedom from unfair detention, trials, and punishments, the sanctity of individual liberties? Thank Madison.
But the main point, beyond giving us that history-changing Constitution and preserving our individual liberties for all time – as text and intent are honored by our federal judiciary – something else happened. Yes, sometimes the devil – and the angels – are in the details. They were that summer.
At our Constitutional Convention, top political minds were present, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Roger Sherman, James Madison, George Mason, and countless others. Thomas Jefferson was in France, others indisposed, but big names attended.
So, here are “funny things” that happened, and from which we could learn much today. First, despite four months of the most sensitive, intensive, and often intensely disagreeable debate in our nation’s history – there were no press leaks.
Stunning, eh? James Madison kept notes, which is all we know.
Second, the big group often broke into a “committee of the whole,” off the record, verbally bare-fisted, teeth-gnashing, disagreeable for days. Eventually, a “committee of detail” offered the text, as close to perfect as they could get. But here is the point – in all those sessions, over all those days, discussing every contested provision, no member ever chastised another for changing his position.
Rather remarkable, is it not? Madison’s notes, readable in books like Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966), showcase that truth. And here is the truth behind the truth when chips are down, when serious because we must be when getting to truth matters – as it did with the Articles and Bill of Rights – we do not divide.
Americans stop the politics, honor inquiry, and help each other get to the truth. They had to then – and time is coming when, once again, we will all have to.
Finally, another aspect of that time – that event – is remarkable. Modern talkers imagine our Founders were largely unified, winning a war, beating an empire, topped an epidemic, all men, white, and landed.
Forget it. They were as likely to fight as unite, argue as agree, bash as bond, raise cane as raise a toast. What brought them together were three things – a desperate desire to protect individual freedoms, then lodged in state constitutions; a desperate desire to be equal to their time, realizing nationhood depended on them; and a core principle, respect for each other as patriots.
So, what does that summer of 1787 teach us? You can survive an epidemic worse than the one we just went through – by magnitudes – and come out swinging. You can protect a nation, even when you think you do not have it in you. You can find the truth if you forgive changes of mind, seek to understand those who disagree with you, argue toward light, not against it. And you can get a lot further in defense of freedom – and everything America represents – with patience, respect, and an appeal to patriotism.
We live in divided times, but history is our lamplight. If we will stop, read, think, listen, and apply what events like the Constitutional Convention illuminate for us, we will stride forward, more often hand in hand than trippingly. What we know from history is the pursuit of truth is unifying, so let us pursue it.
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