Reflection on Constitution Day by Canon Flattery
By: By Canon John J. Flattery
Editor’s note — Canon Flattery is a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria living in Danville who has a keen interest in history.
The Sept. 13 issue of The Catholic Post included an essay he penned on the two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution. What follows is a second essay offering background on the process that led to the document that guides our nation.
By Canon John J. Flattery
Constitution Day is Sept. 17, the day in 1787 when the draft of the Constitution was signed by 39 of 55 delegates gathered to improve the Articles of Confederation. The draft then was submitted to the states for ratification. The approval of at least nine states was needed for adoption.
After a long and difficult struggle it became the founding document of the new United States of America .
The law establishing the holiday was enacted in 2004 with the passage of an amendment by Sen. Robert Byrd to an Omnibus spending bill. Its purpose was to make Americans more appreciative of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of 1791.
The 13 colonies had fought a long war with England, and in 1783 the Peace of Paris treaty granted them their independence. In 1781, during the war, they had ratified the Articles of Confederation by which they would be governed, but by 1787 the articles were not working well. The individual states were too powerful and the national government was too weak. Then came Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. Farmers were up in arms over high taxes and foreclosures. All of this together imperiled the existence of the new republic.
So in May 1787 delegates began to arrive in Philadelphia for a meeting officially to improve the Articles of Confederation. They met in Independence Hall, the same hall in which the Declaration of Independence had been debated and approved in 1776. By May 25 they had the quorum of 10 states needed to officially begin. Rhode Island never sent delegates and delegates from New Hampshire and Georgia arrived late.
Eventually 55 delegates worked to devise a new system of governance for the nation, not improve the Articles. Many delegates lodged at the Indian Queen Tavern and sometimes informal meetings and discussions were held there. All were housed close to Independence Hall
The summer was hot but they kept the hall shuttered and closed to insure secrecy. They knew they were exceeding their official mandate. George Washington, probably the most respected man in the country, presided.
James Madison, later President Madison, is regarded as the father of the Constitution and he certainly contributed much to it. He brought to the convention two papers he had written: one was a study of ancient and modern confederacies, the other was a study of the defects of the Articles of Confederation. Seated in the front row, he also kept accurate records of the procedures and debates.
On May 29 Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented the Virginia Plan, which called for a national legislature in which representatives would be determined by proportional representation, giving more power to the large states. He also called for a national executive and a national judiciary.
The delegates were almost all intent on devising a separation of powers among the legislature, the executive and the judiciary with checks and balances to preclude any tyrannous central government. They had just fought a revolution against tyranny.
It has been said that at the convention featured 55 delegates and a ghost. The ghost was the memory of Oliver Cromwell who in the previous century in England after the execution of King Charles II had grasped all power and dominated the state as a dictator. The memory of that tyranny was still very fresh in the minds of the delegates.
The delegates wanted a stronger central government but they knew the danger of power and how power tends to corrupt even good men. So they sought through compromise and hope to build a new government that balanced power between the central government and the state governments with many checks and balances to avoid any centralized autocratic power. But how?
Delegates from smaller states were not happy with the Virginia Plan. In mid-June, James Patterson of New Jersey presented the New Jersey Plan which insisted on a congress in which each state had one vote with a plural federal executive to be elected by the congress. This plural federal executive would then appoint the judiciary. This brought on much more debate.
The delegates were almost equally divided between the two plans. There was danger of a deadlock.
By the middle of July came a compromise plan presented by Roger Sherman of Pennsylvania. He basically proposed a bicameral solution. In one house each state would have a vote; in the other there would be proportional representation.
The constitution was indeed a series of compromises. The 55 delegates were educated men from different backgrounds and with diverse interests. Their average age was 42 and most were above average in abilities. But the desire to devise a better system of government united them.
Compromise made the constitution possible; indeed compromise made the new nation possible. During the rest of July and August the debates, votes and compromises continued. Delegates scoured committee reports word by word until they reached acceptable wording.
The need for a stronger central government was recognized — but how strong and how powerful? They sought at once to prevent creeping tyranny by any one or any group and they also feared mob rule and the tyranny of the majority over the minority. They sought to preserve the power of the individual states and yet create a central government with adequate power to take its place among the nations of the world.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, wrote that he envisioned 95 percent of the governing to be done at the state level and only 5 percent at the central level.
After all the debates and compromises there was still much uncertainty as to how the vote would go. At the final session, when the vote was still in considerable doubt, the legendary Benjamin Franklin rose and addressed the delegates: “I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government is necessary for us?.I doubt, too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution?.Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best?.”
The practical wisdom of the revered “old man,” he was in his eighties, was powerful and undoubtedly swayed votes.
The final draft was signed on Sept. 17, 1787. Only 39 delegates signed; some had departed for home; some refused to sign. But the document was now ready to be sent back to the states where it had to be voted on.
The great debate now followed throughout the nation. One of the important documents to come out of this national debate was the Federalist Papers. These 85 essays were written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to justify this new form of governance. They are still relevant today and helpful in determining the mind and intention of the delegates in drafting the constitution.
The debates at the state level were often very bitter. Honorable men were on both sides. But finally the ratification process was complete. In early 1789 the new government under the Constitution was formed with two houses in the congress, George Washington as the first president and a national judiciary. The “American experiment,” unique in the world at that time, was launched.
Madison wrote, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
This same James Madison then worked in the congress for two more years to get the Bill of Rights passed to insure the liberties and rights of every citizen and to protect the individual against any and every abuse of power by the government
Our constitution thus begins with the preamble: “We the People of the United States , in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution fo the United States of America .”
How blessed we are to be citizens of this great country. How lucky we were to have these 55 delegates labor so long and hard and compromise often to build this nation. How fortunate we are to have had the “American experiment” work so well for over two centuries. Our task as citizens is both to preserve it and protect and thus protect ourselves from any and every form of tyranny.