The U.S. Constitution celebrates its 234th birthday

By Michael R. Malone

The U.S. Constitution celebrates its 234th birthday

By Michael R. Malone
A willingness to compromise, a gentleman’s code of civic virtue and service, and a commitment to the collective good of the country are characteristics that defined the 39 brave men who, on Sept. 17, 1787, penned their names to the final draft of the document that changed the United States, according to a constitutional specialist.

Arthur Simon, a senior lecturer with the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences Department of Political Science, former Florida representative, and constitutional specialist, described the proceedings that generated the U.S. Constitution—a new experiment in self-governance—as nothing short of “amazing.”

Below are 39 curios and rare facts culled from comments by the constitutional specialist.

Delegates met on 89 of the 116 days between May 25 and their final meeting on Sept. 17, 1787. The meetings took place at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

  1. It was illegal. The delegates far exceeded the authority invested in them. Congress authorized the convention for the express purpose of proposing amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation. 
  2. The delegates quickly decided amendments would not be enough, so they crafted a new Constitution and a mechanism for its enactment. “It was unauthorized, but it turned out for the best,” Simon said.
  3. Seventy delegates were originally selected; 55 actually participated in deliberations—though not all were present at the same time as many were going back and forth to their home states. Ultimately, 39 signed, not that any opposed—many were just not there on the day of the signing.
  4. The delegates agreed to deliberate in secret to avoid speculations that might derail their efforts until they had finished.
  5. Philadelphia was hot in the summer. To keep people lingering outside the hall from listening, the delegates shut the large windows and deliberated inside in the sweltering heat.
  6. At the end of each day, the delegates would filter out and walk back to where they were staying, someone’s home or a tavern that had rooms. People might ask them what’s going on—but they had given their word and as gentlemen they kept it. No information was leaked.
  7. Despite the fact they had such dramatically opposing views on so many issues, they honored their vow to keep their proceedings secret. “In this day and age, it just seems inconceivable to get a group together, making such important decisions, without someone leaking information,” Simon commented.
  8. They all fundamentally recognized that there was a need for a major change and that it was critical that they proceed in secrecy to avoid the likelihood that word would leak out that they were considering this or that, and before you know it, delegates would be withdrawn.
  9. Though they came from different backgrounds, different cultures, and most didn’t know each other, they recognized the task at hand, maintained their bond of secrecy, and adopted a number of huge compromises.
  10. Benjamin Franklin, the oldest member of the convention, epitomized the delegates. Franklin long aspired to become a gentleman, which meant he sought to achieve financial security and be able to spend time and energy contributing to society in some fashion—science, participating in government, etc.
  11. Commonalities: Almost all 55 had taken part in the revolution, more than half in a fighting capacity in the Continental Army, and many had been commanding officers.
  12. Close to 75 percent were members of the Confederation Congress (who were appointed by their state legislatures). More than half were trained as lawyers.
  13. Twenty-five delegates were slave owners, and 16 of them were owners whose plantations depended on slave labor.
  14. All had financial means. A few would have been considered among the wealthiest in the country at the time.
  15. The delegates were elite in the sense that they had resources and were among the best educated—1 in 4 were practicing attorneys.
  16. Delegates were fervent believers in 18th-century republicanism—an ideology of governing a nation with elected representatives, encouraging all public officials to practice civic virtue, and fostering a political system that protects liberty.
  17. Yet they were somewhat “allergic” to the notion of democracy, based on their belief that only those who were dutifully qualified—educated and financially successful—were suitable to participate in governing and decision-making. If only 10 percent of the populace met these qualifications, by any contemporary standard this would not be viewed as “democracy.”
  18. Among the incentives to revamp the Articles of Confederation was the concern for the “excess of democracy”—the political power exercised by state legislatures. Some state legislatures were passing laws that interfered with property rights and other contract rights, which scared a lot of the business interests and the wealthy to the point that they were supportive of a new constitution that would protect those kinds of rights.
  19. The Articles of Confederation contemplated only the legislative branch. There was no separate executive branch, no federal courts, or judiciary. The delegates leaned on their own experience in their own states to determine advantages or disadvantages of different variations.
  20. Pennsylvania had the most delegates, since the convention was held in Philadelphia. New York and Virginia, two of the most important states at the time, had just one and two delegates, respectively, who ultimately signed the document.
  21. James Madison of Virginia was considered the architect of the constitution and became the foremost constitutional advocate and lawyer.
  22. Roger Sherman, one of the Connecticut delegates, was responsible for the “Great Compromise” [sometimes referred to as the “Connecticut Compromise”]. This compromise created the bicameral legislature, where the “big state view” was instituted for the House of Representatives (representation based on population) and the “small state view” in the Senate (each state gets two senators).
  23. The Great Compromise meant that neither the big states nor the small ones could dominate.
  24. This hugely important compromise was the first and most important substantive issue because if they couldn’t agree on the composition of what the new Congress should be, there would be no new Constitution.
  25. Slavery was the most divisive issue of all. Some depended on slavery for their livelihood, others rejected the odious practice all together. On every level—personally, economically, socially, and politically—slavery was the most contentious.
  26. The delegates recognized that if they couldn’t accommodate the slave states, then the new Constitution would never be adopted and ratified. Recognizing what was at stake—reconstructing the whole government of the country—they reached a compromise.
  27. Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution prevents Congress from passing any laws regarding the importation of slaves until 1808. The compromise had to do with the slave trade, but essentially avoided the issue of slavery for the next 20-year period.
  28. The southern states agreed to the compromise because the populations of enslaved people were booming and some feared that the increasing numbers  represented a danger of enslaved people revolts.
  29. Given the economics of the slave trade, these states were satisfied that Congress couldn’t pass any law banning the importation of enslaved persons within the next 20 years. Moreover, there was no guarantee that Congress would address the issue of slavery at the later date.
  30. Not only was democracy as we know it somewhat taboo, so were political parties. The framers didn’t contemplate political parties because these ran afoul of their republican ideology that persons who would be elected would represent all the people, not just a portion, or a specific economic or religious group.
  31. George Washington served two terms as the one and only president who didn’t belong to a political party—it was not contemplated under the original system.
  32. One of the provisions—and possibly the single most important one—is Amendment 5, the amending article. This amendment imbues the Constitution with its constitutional character as an instrument of fundamental and extraordinary law.
  33. Most of the framers recognized this new Constitution may not be perfect and over time there might arise the need for changes. Yet having lived through a war, they wanted to ensure that should the need and overwhelming consensus arise, people would not have to resort to violence or revolution. So, they built in an institutional mechanism for orderly change when warranted.
  34. The Constitution is an instrument of fundamental or extraordinary law, meaning it is federal law but not an ordinary law—it’s not a statute that can be revised from year to year by a simple majority, but instead requires extraordinary consensus in Congress to accomplish any type of a change.
  35. The ratification of the Constitution was by no means a sure thing. In some states the voting was very close. In Massachusetts, John Hancock had to appear in person to convince the state ratifying convention to vote to adopt.
  36. One of the principal reasons it did finally get ratified was because there had been a major dispute between the Federalists and the so-called Anti-Federalists about the lack of a bill of personal rights.
  37. James Madison originally thought it was unnecessary to include a Bill of Rights because the federal government had limited p Anti-Federalists, however, believed there needed to be stronger provisions in the original Constitution protecting individual rights. 
  38. Sensing that the Constitution might not attain the votes to ratify, Madison changed his position saying if the Constitution is ratified at the very first session of the new Congress, he would propose a series of new amendments pursuant to Article 5 (eventually the Bill of Rights). That was enough to convince a few states on the fence to support ratification. 
  39. On the last day of the convention, delegates filtered out and headed for home. There was amazing curiosity as to what had been decided. As Benjamin Franklin walked down the street, a woman called out. “Dr. Franklin, what kind of a government are we now going to have, a monarchy or a republic?” “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

“If there is one lesson to be learned from the constitutional convention that would be valuable for our elected members of Congress today,” said Simon, “it was the willingness of these delegates to compromise.” 

The University is marking the day on Friday with a number of events, including participation in “Bells Across America.” The University carillon, housed within the Richter Library, will sound its bells at 4 p.m. together with schools, cities, churches, firehouses, etc. across the country. Individuals are encouraged to ring their cell phones at that same time. 

The Butler Center for Service and Leadership and the “Get out the Vote” student organization are also handing out pocket Constitutions at their event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lakeside Canopy.