History & Culture

Constitutional Convention – Lessons for Today

Constitutional Convention

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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1 month ago

Thanks for this. Do the Commies know anything about the Constitution? Apparently not. The should all be arrested for Treason ’cause they are not following it.

Julio Biden
1 month ago

no speak Ingles

1 month ago

Well said. Thank you for the encouragement.

1 month ago

The vast majority of the time was spent as “a committee of the whole.”

There is a great movie called”A More Perfect Union” that does a great job of telling that story. Also “Tempest at Dawn” by Best.

Marc Ziegler
1 month ago

A Constitutional Convention would be great if it could ever happen. Political disagreements are everywhere and getting anybody to agree in todays highly politized environment would be virtually impossible. Nothing in this countries politics will ever change until we change how the fake main stream media is allowed to operate. Until we find a way, which could be changing tort laws so people could sue, most news as we read it will always be tainted with misinformation, censorship and lies. Because of this fake news, no one can make the correct decision on who to vote for or a policy to agree with. People are being duped into voting for the wrong person or policy by the media, take for example the election of Joe Biden. How could a man so inapt and cognitively deficient replace another man so good as Donald Trump. Regardless in what you think of Trump, this is scary!!

Bill on the Hill
1 month ago
Reply to  Marc Ziegler

Well stated Marc Ziegler…Our gov’t. in it’s present form, a convention of states will NEVER happen. As stated in this wonderful article by RBC, as Madison & others noted, ” will the gov’t get to big for it’s britches? ”
Has it ever…The Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791 & still with us to this very day. It brings to mind my home state of Vermont, a Republic from 1777-1791 & soon thereafter it received statehood, that was no easy process either & a story for another day perhaps…
The average life expectancy back in the day was considered you did well if you made it to 40 years young…
My Great Grandfather, George Oscar Farr was born in 1860 & he died in 1911 at 51 years of age whereas his wife, Anna L. Stuart was born in 1869 & she lived until 1942 at the age of 73…( 11 ) years before my birth…I have picture of Anna Stuart holding a baby in her arms, my father…
My Grandmother, Inez Lillian Farr lived to the age of 93 as she was born in Peru, VT in 1890…
To answer your question that lacks a question mark Marc, perhaps by design. O’Biden did indeed replace Donald J. Trump & as the entire nation & the world over knows full well, the 2020 US Presidential Election was STOLEN & we as a nation are currently living through a dystopian nightmare none of us asked for, hence the audits with AZ about to drop like a hot rock with others soon to follow, we now have a Gestapo like regime in our nation’s capital that will stop at nothing to shut it all down… We The People have something to say about that, they can’t STOP what’s coming, hold onto your hats, it’s gonna be a wild ride!
God bless America & our President of the United States, Donald J. Trump…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

1 month ago
Reply to  Marc Ziegler


1 month ago

Great article, and one that should be read by everyone.

J. Farley
1 month ago

A Constitutional Convention is needed but must be limited in scope, First: Reaffirm The Bill Rights. Second: Deal with Term limits for Senators and Representatives. Third: Deal with Taxation limits by Government bodies Fourth: Make Impeachment be on legal grounds and not political. I am sure there are limits, I have no trust in an open convention. One other area of limitation would be limit the powers of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the military on American soil.
God Bless America !!!!!!!!

J. Farley
1 month ago
Reply to  J. Farley

I meant to say in the fourth line —–I am sure there are other limits——

1 month ago
Reply to  J. Farley

Balance budgets

1 month ago
Reply to  DrScott

Which in reality would be done by increasing taxes, not by reducing spending. Be very, very careful what you’re advocating for.

Geraldine McGann
1 month ago
Reply to  J. Farley

A new Constitutional Convention would be a can of worms, a Pandora ‘ s Box. It would not be limited.

1 month ago
Reply to  J. Farley

And congress cannot exempt itself from any Law they pass.

1 month ago

“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.” That may have still been true when her book was written in 1966. Unfortunately, it is no longer true today. A growing percentage of the population, chiefly those under the age of 50 that have been systematically indoctrinated to reject core American principles and embrace the principles of socialism, would rather totally re-make the United States.

Yes, the original Constitutional Convention was indeed a well thought out and excellent example of what can be fashioned by representatives of the People, when they put aside their petty self interests and differences and strive for a larger, more noble cause to empower the People over any government formed. However, when you look at the bureaucratic and insular behemoth that has become Washington, D.C. today, can you honestly say the vast majority of our elected representatives currently running the Congress and White House reflect the same values our Founding Fathers fought so hard to fashion for us?

Yes, it is vital that all Americans understand the history and motivations of how we, as a nation, came to be and what was done to try and ensure that vision persisted going forward. However, it is also equally important to clearly see how far we have drifted, especially in the last 100 years, from the vision our Founding Fathers tried to ensure for us. The American people of 1787 had just fought a war for independence to free themselves from an oppressive and unaccountable government. In 2021 we have a substantial and growing amount of the American population fighting to empower an increasingly powerful and unaccountable government to strip us for every single right and freedom our ancestors fought so hard for. In essence, turn back the clock to when a small group of elites (they were called Kings and Queens) had absolute control of everything in pre-Magna Carta times (back then, it was called a absolute monarchy). Today it is called socialism or communism, which is what Marx based his model of governance on. See the real problem? We currently have two completely opposing ideals for what the United States should be being played out in real-time.

Last edited 1 month ago by PaulE
Bill on the Hill
1 month ago

RBC… Once again a great article on our beloved Constitution & The Bill of Rights…
Our founding Fathers were nothing short of being genius in how they finally got it all done…
I would absolutely love to be able to go back in time, breath the same air & listen to all the bantering they produced whilst they smoked their pipes…
Back then of coarse, the federal gov’t was but a handful of people & easy enough to keep it reigned in…Now we have a completely out of control government with well over 2 million people on the payroll. Times have indeed changed for sure…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

1 month ago

Our founders met to “revise” the Articles of Confederation. It was planned to be just that– limited. But a called convention can change both the scope and rules of a convention. They changed by throwing out the entire Articles and totally re-wrote it into the U.S. Constitution. They even relaxed the rules for getting it ratified. Do we want that repeated? One former U.S.Justice said he only wants to add three words in the 2nd Amendment “the right of the people (in the militia) to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. Do we really want to call a convention in this atmosphere of rioting, burning, threatening of judges and juries and throwing police officers in prison? Can you imagine the political, media, and communist pressure in the streets to influence a rational outcome.
If our politicians would follow the Constitution rather than end run around it, our problems would be greatly reduced. Except for one little thing–Adams said this constitution was only good for a religious and moral people…..but that’s another story.

Bill on the Hill
1 month ago
Reply to  Chuck

Very well spoken Chuck… ” If it ain’t broke, why fix it. ”
We now have this behemoth out of control government & a foreign entity running it, i.e. China with no lack of brevity in continuously doing end-runs around our beloved Constitution…
Our entire justice system in America has been turned upside down, i.e. SOLD OUT to George Soros as well as evil corporations with deep pockets…
The rioters & murders are released from prison & conservative people are getting locked up, long term…
The naïve peaceful protesters that entered the Capital building are still in jail, the actual perpetrators, i.e. blm/antifa with help from undercover FBI were set free long ago…
This same scenario is playing out across this nation at this very moment…
At this very moment in time, the Federal gov’t, FBI/CIA, courts, all the way to SCOTUS are captured entities are are currently the enemy of the very people they are supposed to be serving… :~(
Bill on the Hill… :~)

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