September 17th is Constitution Day!

Digital Originals

This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the first page of the United States Constitution. (National Archives via AP)

(WHTM) — In the summer of 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 United States gather in Philadelphia to try to create something they desperately need, a government that actually works.

In a sense, this whole process begins in York, Pennsylvania. In 1777 the Continental Congress, meeting in the York County Courthouse after fleeing the British occupation of Philadelphia (long story, some other time) approves the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles achieves two lasting results; it names the new country “The United States of America,” and it gives York bragging rights as the first capital of the country.

Other than that, it’s a bit of a bust.

In their zeal to maintain the sovereignty of the individual states, the creators of the Articles of Confederation make the central government too weak to hold things together, “a rope of sand”, as George Washington later calls it. In particular, not giving it the ability to level taxes forces the central government to go to the states hat in hand, begging for funding and not always getting it.

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So in 1787 the delegates at what will become known as the Constitutional Convention start the task of revising the Articles of Confederation. “Revising” quickly becomes “Scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.” From May to September they work, write, rewrite, argue, compromise, re-rewrite, argue some more, and re-re-rewrite, in an unusually hot summer, with the windows of Independence Hall closed and curtained so nobody can eavesdrop on their efforts. (Need I mention there was no air-conditioning back then?)

Finally, on September 17th, delegates gather one last time, vote to present their finished product to the Confederation Congress (and from there to the states for ratification), and sign the Constitution. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire becomes the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, and it becomes the law of the land. Two hundred and thirty-three years and twenty-seven amendments later, the basic framework remains unchanged.

Constitution Day has its start in 1940, when Congress and the President pass a resolution creating “I Am an American Day,” recognizing new American citizens, to be observed on the third Sunday in May. Then In 1952, the holiday is renamed “Constitution Day” and the date moved to September 17. In 2004 Congress changes the name of the holiday to Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. So the day now honors both the Constitution and those who choose to live under that Constitution.

In its 233 years, the Constitution has faced challenges; threats of secession, actual secession and civil war, and on occasion, mediocre or just downright bad leadership in all branches of government. And yet, it endures. In 2009, The University of Chicago School of Law published a study that estimates the average lifespan of a constitution worldwide since 1789 is only seventeen years. So why did our Constitution beat the odds? People have debated that almost from the moment it was ratified, and much ink has been spilt on the matter. I do not profess to be a constitutional scholar, and this is by no means a complete list, but here are a few reasons I think stand out:

It’s short. Of all the written Constitutions on Earth, the United States Constitution is the second shortest-4,543 words in the original document and 7,591 words when you add in the 27 amendments. THE shortest is Monaco’s at 3,814 words. (The longest constitution is India’s at 146,385 words-in the English version.)

It’s simple. The Constitution doesn’t get bogged down in minutia. It creates the Legislature, the Presidency, and the Judiciary gives each branch a few basic parameters and leaves it to each branch to organize their day-to-day operations. (As an example of why this was a good idea, the rules of the House of Representatives now run to over 1500 pages.)

Separation of Powers/Checks and Balances. The two go hand in hand. The Founding Fathers labored hard to set up a system where each branch of the government could put the brakes on the behavior of the other two. The President can veto legislation, the legislature can override that veto, the courts can decide whether or not a law, regulation, or executive action meets Constitutional muster, and so on. Does it work perfectly? No. Does it work adequately? Opinions differ-and they usually depend on whose ox is being gored at any given time.

It can be changed but not easily. The framers of the Constitution knew that at some point, changes to the Constitution would need to be made. They also knew if they made it too easy to change the Constitution, it might be amended into a useless hash. So, they decided an amendment could be ratified only if three-fourths of the states vote in favor. The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, were enacted in 1791, in response to one of the main criticisms of the Constitution, that it did not have any written guarantees of personal liberties. Since 1789 over 11,00 proposed amendments have been introduced in Congress, but only 33 survived the vetting process and went to the states for ratification. Six of those failed to pass.

There is no “escape clause”. Nowhere in the document will you find a clause stating that the Courts, Congress, or the President can suspend the entire Constitution. The closest it comes is Article I, Section 9, concerning suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus (the legal principle protecting citizens from arrest and detention without trial) in times of emergency. But there’s nothing that says you can scrap the Constitution outright during an emergency or any other time. Could it be the most important clause of the Constitution is the one that was left out?

Before the final vote and signing, Benjamin Franklin presented a speech. At age 81, he was too frail to give the speech himself, so his fellow Pennsylvanian, James Wilson delivered it for him. A part of his speech seems a good way to close this story.

“…I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet hereafter for the Purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best…”

To read the Constitution as preserved in the National Archives, click here

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