How the United States Constitution Changed the World
"Miracles do not occur at random, nor was it the author of this book who said there was a miracle at Philadelphia in the year 1787. George Washington said it, and James Madison. They used the word in writing to their friends, Washington to Lafayette, Madison to Thomas Jefferson."
--Catherine Drinker Bowen in Miracle at Philadelphia
"We the people..." So begins the most important governing document written in the last 250 years. The U.S. Constitution was truly something new under the sun. Never before had a new nation been forged with the powerful words of the governed. For centuries, kings, aristocrats and tyrants had spoken of what the lower classes and peasants would be required to do.
When the 55 delegates from every state except Rhode Island met in Philadelphia in May 1787, they did not know they might produce a document that would change the course of human history. This really was a novel creation, one which outlined how people... would govern... themselves, without an overbearing King or group of wealthy aristocrats dictating the terms and calling the shots. From a notion... emerged... a new nation.
|The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia|
Pennsylvanians played a special role in this process. With eight delegates including the wise and respected Benjamin Franklin, shrewd financier Robert Morris and political operative Gouverneur Morris, they had more participants and perspectives to share than any other state, even the powerful Virginia delegation, with George Washington and James Madison among their seven representatives.
Several attempts at unification for the colonies were made in the decade before this meeting. The Declaration of Independence- signed in the same chamber eleven years before, while inspiring, was more of a statement of protest against the British government than anything resembling a legally binding document. The Articles of Confederation- signed in 1777, ratified in 1781 when the Revolutionary War was almost over- was a best attempt to coordinate the activities of the thirteen colonies which considered themselves completely separate, independent entities. It failed to form a true and binding union because few of the colonies wanted to grant authority to a centralized authority.
|Articles of Confederation|
When the Constitutional Convention ended on September 17, 1787 the delegates were not even sure if they had accomplished something that was "legal"- as they had been appointed only to propose changes to the Articles, "not to design a new government", as historian Pauline Meier stated in her book Ratification. The delegates shrewdly wrote in Article VII ( the ending to their document) that "the Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution..." They understood that getting all thirteen states to agree on anything so groundbreaking as a Constitution would be- like any large group deciding over where to have lunch- a major challenge.
The seven Articles in the U.S. Constitution embodied the first time that a group of enlightened citizens spelled out exactly what rights they had as residents of each individual state and what powers a centralized government had over those states. Knowing that it was critical to have citizens delineating those powers, the very first Article they wrote details the authority granted to Congress- peopled by citizens of those states- Article II details the powers and responsibilities of the Chief Executive (President); Article III those of the Judiciary system represented by the courts.
|Article I, United States Constitution|
I would not be writing these words today with the many freedoms I enjoy if Alexander Hamilton had not participated in the Constitutional Convention. Perhaps the most gifted of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton knew that the republic- any republic- would falter and crumble if it could not generate sufficient revenue to pay off its debts and provide funds for government operations. Article I, Section 8 has his fingerprints all over it. This details the powers of Congress to issue and pay down debt, regulate trade and commerce, enact taxes, duties and tariffs to generate revenue and issue coin and currency. Without Article I, Section 8, our struggling nation would have have descended into chaos and bankruptcy. It is the lifeblood of the Constitution.
To gauge the importance of the U.S. Constitution, take a look around the world. All those countries which enjoy the most freedoms and the greatest prosperity are, in some form, constitutional republics with representative governments outlining the responsibilities and authority of that government as well as the rights granted to its citizens. The nations which have faltered or continue to struggle which have the least freedom- Cuba, North Korea, Iran and others- are either Communist dictatorships or theocratic monarchies which deny their citizens the many rights and privileges all Americans enjoy. It is no accident that America is the freest AND most prosperous nation on Earth. The Founding Fathers got it right. Although the original Constitution was modified numerous times (twenty-seven Amendments as of this writing), it set a standard unmatched by any other country.
The United States Constitution is the oldest continuously operating document outlining the powers and authority of government and the rights of its citizens. It remains a guiding beacon for all nations, all peoples and cultures around the world. Despite its flaws, the American system of government- and its guiding document, the Constitution- remain an inspiration to all who seek freedom and justice in an uncertain world.