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Making a nation: The foundation of the U.S. Constitution

By Henry Lamb
web posted September 19, 2005

Saturday, September 17 was Constitution Day, a celebration of what is widely recognized as the greatest achievement in self-governance yet conceived by the human mind. While many people believe the U.S. Constitution is "inspired," in much the same way that religious scripture is said to be "inspired," the inspiration was not carved by lightning in tablets of stone, it came in fits and starts, over several years of bitter struggle.

The Second Continental Congress convened May 10, 1775, after King George III refused to honor the Declaration of Rights and Grievances adopted by the First Continental Congress. A month earlier, British troops had descended on Concord, Massachusetts to confiscate "guns and powder" from the colonists. The " shot heard around the world" resulted in the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

The next week, in preparation for the Second Continental Congress, the Virginia Provincial Council met to decide what position Virginia's delegates would take. Here, Patrick Henry delivered his now famous speech that concluded:

"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
Amid cries of "treason, treason," Henry's motion to arm a militia carried, 65 to 60. Henry was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where John Adams said of him:
"There was but one man in Congress, Patrick Henry, who appeared to me to have the sense of the precipice of the danger upon which we stood, and had the courage and the ability to address it."
For more than a year, the delegates debated the idea of independence. Finally, in June of 1776, a committee consisting of: John Adams, Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to draft a Declaration of Independence. The men who signed the Declaration July 4, 1776, knew that their action would result in war, and an era of uncertainty.

A week after the signing, John Dickinson proposed The Articles of Confederation, which included a strong central government.

The Articles were debated and revised for another year, which resulted in removing most of the power of the central government, before being submitted to the States for ratification in November of 1777. The States debated the Articles for another four years, before the final ratification by Maryland occurred, on March 1, 1781. The war dragged on for another two years, until the Treaty of Paris was signed September 3, 1783.

Not everyone in the United States shared Patrick Henry's zeal for freedom. Nor did they all support the Declaration of Independence or the Articles of Confederation. From a population of only about 2.5 million, as many as 100,000 "Loyalists" fled to Canada, between 1775 and 1780. As many as 30,000 slaves escaped to join with the British army, on the promise of being freed after the war. Still other loyalists stayed in the U.S. and aided the British troops in a variety of ways.

The war claimed 4,435 American lives, and wounded another 6,188. These people died to win the right to form their own government, and live is they chose to live, rather than to be subjects of an omnipotent king. Neither victory on the battlefield, nor the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, guaranteed the freedom for which they fought.

The new government of the United States guaranteed sovereignty for each of the 13 States. The government consisted of one legislative body - the Congress - in which each State had one vote. There was no executive branch, no judicial branch. Nine votes were required to adopt laws, and amendments to the Articles required all 13 votes.

On paper, the new government was empowered to set up a postal department, to estimate the costs of the government and request donations from the States, to raise armed forces, and to control the development of the western territories, coin, borrow, or appropriate money, as well as declare war and enter into treaties and alliances with foreign nations. Nothing in the Articles, however, empowered the Congress to enforce any of its powers.

States that did not agree with a law adopted by Congress could, and often did, ignore the law. States withheld payment requests made by the new government, and, when unhappy with the trade agreements made with other nations, began to negotiate their own separate agreements. Some States began to impose tariffs on other States' commerce. By 1787, it was clear to many that the new government was inadequate.

On February 21, 1787, by a vote of 14 to 10, Congress authorized a Constitutional Convention to assemble in Philadelphia in May, to "revise" the Articles of Confederation.

James Madison arrived in Philadelphia two weeks before the Constitution Convention convened. In his satchel, he had the outline of what would become "The Virginia Plan." He knew how divided the Continental Congress was over the idea of convening a Constitution Convention. He knew first hand, the deep division in his own Virginia Legislature. He knew that most of the delegates who came to Philadelphia would have strict instructions to agree to nothing that would diminish state sovereignty. The Continental Congress authorized the Convention to only "revise" the Articles of Confederation.

The Virginia Plan abolished the Articles of Confederation, and created a whole new form of government. By arriving early, Madison could meet and visit informally with the delegates as they arrived, and sort of "test the water" before he unveiled his radical plan. Before the Convention convened, he met with the Virginia delegation, which included George Washington. They agreed that they should introduce the Virginia Plan as ideas to "correct and enlarge" the Articles of Confederation.

No sooner had the Virginia Plan been introduced, when Pennsylvania delegate, Govurneur Morris, pointed out that the plan neither corrected nor enlarged the Articles of Confederation, but instead, the plan abolished the Articles.

The head-on confrontation which the Virginia delegation hoped to avoid, divided the Convention on the very first day of debate. Under the Articles of Confederation, small states had one vote, as did the large states. This arrangement created a government of states. Madison's plan called for proportional representation in two houses of Congress, thereby giving large states many more votes in Congress than the small states. This arrangement, Madison reasoned, would create a government of the people. Of course, small states were not impressed with Madison's reasoning.

The debate raged on for weeks during the hot Philadelphia summer. Delegates threatened to walk out of the Convention, and thus end any hope of revising the Articles. Finally, Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a compromise: delegates to the lower house of congress should be elected on a proportional basis, but delegates to the upper house of congress would have one vote for each state, regardless of the state's size.

Madison, Ben Franklin, and other influential delegates opposed the compromise. Passions ran so high that the shouting almost came to blows, but when the aging, and highly respected Ben Franklin rose to speak, silence fell across the room. Quietly, he reminded the delegates that the future of the union depended on their actions. He reminded them that during the war for independence, when their army faced impossible challenges, they didn't quit and go home. Instead, he said, they all turned to their Creator to ask for guidance and help. He reminded them that surely, if God knows when a sparrow falls, no great nation can rise without his guidance and help.

They referred the issue to a committee to refine the compromise to come up with an acceptable solution, and moved on to other issues of governance.

Alexander Hamilton, from New York, was not at all happy with the compromise, nor the Virginia Plan. He envisioned a government much like Britain's. He was willing for the people to elect delegates to the lower house of Congress, but he wanted the Senate to be populated by aristocrats, who served for life. He wanted, not a president, but a "Governor," who served for life, chosen by aristocrats. Hamilton's ideas were too much like the government the young nation had just defeated. His plan was soundly rejected.

New Jersey offered another alternative. This plan would have retained the one-vote-per-state concept, but would have created an executive office, appointed by Congress, and subject to recall by State governors. It would have allowed Congress to tax the states, rather than request funds, and it would have allowed the national Congress to override State laws. This plan too, was soundly rejected.

The compromise committee proposed that the lower house be elected based on population, and that the upper house consist of two Senators, selected by the States. Madison saw this as a defeat, but Washington and Franklin, both of whom preferred proportional representation in the Senate, convinced him that without this great compromise, the small States would leave the convention and the entire effort, and the Union, would fail.

This great compromise, and literally hundreds of other compromises hammered out during the Summer of 1787, produced the greatest achievement in self-governance the human intellect has ever produced. This system of governance guarantees perpetual tension between the States and the central government, with the power of resolution resting in the hands of the people. This system guarantees an open door to all ideas, and provides a legislative procedure to test, refine, and polish those ideas into either implementation, or oblivion.

This system allows the people to correct government's mistakes, and reverse its decisions. But this system requires the constant vigilance of the people. History demonstrates that government - any government - left to its own pursuits, will abandon the purpose for which it is created, and seek to strengthen and enrich itself. The Constitution created in Philadelphia in 1787 created a Republic - a government that gives the people the power to keep it in check. The responsibility for its continued success rests upon the shoulders of every citizen.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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