Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Putting Together the Constitution

After the British had thrown in the towel, the United States was faced with the same problem every teenager faces that day when they move out of their parents' house - sure, you have a whole of freedom, and that also means you've got the freedom to actually totally botch this whole "we're on our own" bit.

"Seriously?  No one brought even one pen?"  

We started off with something called "The Articles of Confederation".  A pretty solid document that took 3 years to ratify.  It also almost immediately demonstrated that a gentlemen's agreement to act like a country sometimes but to have completely separate entities doing their own thing with only a bare central government doesn't for a nation make.  Believe me, I work across multiple universities in a sort of handshake agreement, and you can lose a mind-boggling amount of energy corralling people when they have no real responsibility to each other.  And I'm not out trying to make treaties with France.*

Sometimes a little central authority is a good idea.  Like, when you need a central navy, maybe, and not just folks in boats with cannons saying "oh, yeah, we're the Cleveland navy.  Totally legit."

There was also no real authority for taxation, which meant no money in the treasury to pay debts, defend ourselves in the future, etc...  And foreign policy can be a bit sticky when you have no real head of state.

Bear this "no head of state" thing in mind, because what we tend to visualize when thinking about the tri-corner hat and wooden teeth days is this condensed timeline in which we deftly moved from declaring independence to winning the war to George Washington getting elected.  But.  13 years passed between July 4, 1776 and Washington becoming His Excellency the President.  Thirteen!  That's like 3 Spider-Man franchise reboots.  That's a dog being born and living a full life, all under the Articles of Confederation.

In May 1787, what we now call the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia.  Originally intended to whip the Articles of Confederation in shape, the meeting transmogrified into something greater.

James Madison, apparently an over-achiever, showed up with a rough-rough draft of a constitution with the three areas of government outlined, complete with a bicameral legislature.  Folks got pretty excited about this, and the new direction for the meeting emerged.

This is not to say that everyone agreed on a strong central government (you may notice this is a theme some 200+ years on).  Figuring how to actually apportion the two legislatures became a contentious point.  And, in the meantime, no one had really figured out how to have an executive branch, with ideas seriously considered such as a triumvirate of folks, which sounds like a damn nightmare.  But revolutionary ideas also came to light.  What if the upper house - the one with equal representation per state - had more than one representative per state, free to vote as they pleased?

Meanwhile, the battles continued to flare over which areas the federal government should hold jurisdiction, and how explicit the Constitution need be in enumerating the specific roles of the federal government.  The Constitution was also not to get into specifics that might change much over time, that would be managed elsewhere.  And, of course, they made room for Amendments.  And a job called "Vice President" which has given us an endless source of amusement for, lo, these many years.

Look, I'm in utter awe of the work done over a sweaty summer in Philadelphia.  And I'm even more in awe that we generally think the "founding fathers" were all on board with the document that we hold up with religious reverence.  That's not really what happened.  A few states didn't sign, some bailed on the convention altogether before it was over with, and several said "hey, we're getting a Bill of Rights, right?" even as they were putting pen to paper.  Basically, nobody was any happier with the frikkin' Constitution by the time it was done than you are with the results of a high school "group project".  Somehow, odds against odds, we got it done.  And we still follow these rules a bunch of dudes who had never heard of germs came up with!  It's AMAZING.

No, we did not even have a Bill of Rights yet, but we went with it ANYWAY.

I'm not saying it's bad at all.  Heck, a whole lot of governments across the planet have used their work as a blueprint with our Bill of Rights and whatnot in there.  It's good stuff.

Before signing, Benjamin Franklin gave a speech that may have reflected the opinions of all the delegates, though their points of quibble may have been very different from one another.  He feared the collapse of the government into despotism, he was uncertain of the fate of the country, but he did feel they had done well by producing the document.

Franklin said:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.
and, upon working together toward their common goal:
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, finally:
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
We should celebrate our forefathers, but not paint them as saints.  Maybe inspired by their learning, experience and times, but not men empowered with all-encompassing vision.  They knew their limitations and the likeliness of failure, despite their work to do their best.  We can carve statues of them, and build monuments to their fortunate foresight and virtue, but know that their work was very much the same sweaty, uncomfortable work of our own legislators today.

Next up:  The Bill of Rights

*anymore.  I've been asked to stop.

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