“Wisdom and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm.” - General George Washington
The United States Constitution is often referred to in our sound-byte society, but how many of us have actually taken the time to learn anything beyond the quotes and phrases that further our cause? How many of us have taken the time to look at the Constitution and it’s entire history? It’s fascinating to look back at the uncertainty and the fear that surrounded our infantile country in those days and compare it to the realities of today. We’ve come so far but our country still has so many of the same questions.
Imagine if you possibly can, a countryside still soaking into it’s soil the blood of revolutionary soldiers. Brave soldiers who died defending the very idea of the world we now take for granted. There are no cars, there are no billboards. There are no highways, or airplanes, or computers, or cell-phones. There are plenty of other problems that we can’t imagine, but so much of what we take for granted today was 220 or more years from invention in those days. It was in those days that James Madison, a young Virginian with boyish features and an insatiable sense of patriotism worked tirelessly studying political theory and history. Madison’s work was not for personal entertainment, but rather as a search for solutions. Madison felt that the Articles of Confederation which ruled the land in those days, left the blossoming United States exposed to dangerous inadequacies. He was determined to find solutions. The Articles left too much power in the hands of the individual states while leaving the national government weak and seemingly impotent with regard to commercial arguments between states.
The Articles of Confederation provided no taxing authority to the country itself, but instead left the power up to the states. When arguments inevitably arose, the current system left very little power in the hands of the government. States would eventually go to war with each other over commercial issues and a union of states would never exist. Madison was literally terrified with the economic future this presented to the country in which he so vehemently believed. The Continental Congress was working with a heavily depleted treasury, inflation was rampant, businesses and farms were failing, and jails were filling up with people unable to pay their escalating taxes. Depression follows debt and Madison was determined to head it off before it crippled the country he loved.
Daniel Shays was one of those men who became so enraged with the taxation issues that he started a mini-revolution. Shays had been a Captain in the Revolutionary War. He fought bravely in the Battle of Saratoga, The Battle of Lexington, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was wounded and forced to retire. He was never paid a dime for his service, courage, or bravery. Upon returning home he learned that he had been summoned to court over his unpaid debts that had continued to mount in his noble absence. What would later be known as “Shay’s Rebellion” ensued. Mostly farmers, tired of being exploited in order to pay British War investors, Shay’s Rebellion grew quickly. While Captain Shay’s forces were defeated rather easily, his message reached the ears of men like James Madison and General George Washington. The poor were stretched as far as they could be stretched and were looking to relieve the pressure. An uprising against the wealthy would derail the future so many had died to deliver. Anarchy was a very real possibility and it prompted General Washington, from his Mount Vernon home to reach out to James Madison with the quote at the top of this article. That simple quote; that innocuous suggestion may have been the very words that launched the Constitution of the United States. “Wisdom and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm.”
In a proposal to the Virginia Assembly, James Madison recommended a meeting of delegates in September of 1786. The meeting was to take place in Annapolis, Maryland and the purpose was for all states to discuss rising problems with the current commercial environment. James Madison and a young, New York lawyer by the name of Alexander Hamilton issued a report from that meeting in Annapolis in which they urged the Continental Congress to summon delegates from all States to meet in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. Changes were needed. That much was made abundantly clear in the Annapolis meeting. Congress didn’t jump at the idea but felt compelled enough to summon the delegates. The idea was not met with overwhelming support. Some of the era’s most prominent men publicly denounced the proposed Constitutional Convention. The State of Rhode Island refused to send any delegates and Patrick Henry said in a public statement that he “smelt a rat.” People feared that Congress had just taken part in the invitation of it’s own overthrow. It was anarchy from within. Henry and many who shared his fear of a central form of government felt that individual state sovereignty offered more personal protection than the proposed alternative. Despite the notable absences of not only Patrick Henry but other men now considered to be founders of our country like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, the Constitutional Convention commenced in Philadelphia as planned.
It was spring in Philadelphia, and there was a buzz in the streets. There was a sense that something big was happening inside the Pennsylvania State House, which is now known as Independence Hall. The windows, normally open to provide transparency to the very people being represented inside the hallowed halls, were locked shut and covered by thick curtains. Guards stood stoically in front to keep curious passersby from interrupting the proceedings. On May 25, 1787, Robert Morris of Pennsylvania opened the Constitutional Convention. Morris had been considered the “money man” behind the revolution and he commenced the nationally anticipated convention by nominating General George Washington as President of the Constitutional Convention. The vote was unanimous. The very presence of General Washington gave instant credibility to the proceedings and provided an intense source of pride for some of the younger delegates who feared failure. Those same fears had almost kept Washington in the cozy comfort of Mount Vernon. He was torn. He was battling rheumatism, the emotions of his brother’s recent death, and the fear that no men of stature would lend their reputations to what most believed was a futile exercise. Those facts not withstanding, Washington accepted the nomination with humble grace. “I’m embarrassed to preside over such an august body. I apologize for any errors into which I may fall in the course of these deliberations.”
George Mason wrote to his son, in the early days of the convention, “the eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly and their expectations raised to a very anxious degree. May God grant that we may be able to gratify them, by establishing a wise and just government.” 81 year-old Benjamin Franklin never missed a session despite being so frail he had to be carried into the hall. Perhaps it was the level of importance that kept lips sealed as normally chatty politicians were prodded in pubs and taverns nearby.
On May 29, 1787, the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph opened debate with a long speech about the need for a strong, central government. He eloquently outlined the three branches of our government and the system by which each branch would hold the other accountable, but he went too far in his annihilation of state powers. The Virginia Plan, as it was known, was shot down but it put the course of the deliberations in their corner. It established their governmental system as a baseline. The early days of political maneuvering. The New Jersey Plan was shot down quickly as it merely suggested an amendment of the existing Articles of Confederation to allow Federal authority over taxation and commerce. It was viewed as ‘too moderate.’
Alexander Hamilton had them eating out of his hand on June 18, 1787 until he referred to British Government as the “best in the world.” His plan would have laid the groundwork for an American king. He suggested a government in which the elected President would rule as long as he was in good health and maintained his behavior. Interestingly enough, Hamilton would later become one of the most ardent supporters of the new Constitution.
The Convention itself nearly disintegrated over representation issues, but on June 29, 1787 they approved a resolution making population the basis for representation in Congress. Still the pace and frequent gridlock of the proceedings had General Washington frustrated. In July, Washington referred to opponents of a strong, central government as “narrow minded politicians under the influence of local views.” He ordered the entire delegation on a much needed, 10-day vacation. General Washington and Governor Morris rode alongside a creek that ran through the land of what was once the Valley Forge encampment. While the governor plucked trout from the pollution free waters of the creek, George Washington gazed out over the lush lands where just ten years earlier he had led freezing troops through the brutal winter of the Revolutionary War. The battles had launched the country on a course that now required some correction.
On August 6, 1787, the first draft of the Constitution was greeted with immediate conflict. The southern states feared that a New England dominated Congress would impose crippling taxes on the export industries so vital to the south. Concessions were made, and the convention moved forward. Slavery, and the regulation and taxation thereof, was carefully and heatedly debated from both moral and economic viewpoints. Again, concessions and agreements were made and the idea that a central government, hearing and considering all sides of an issue, could serve all states spread among the delegates like fire. The future of the young country depended not on individual states, but on their ability to work together as a country.
On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was signed. The Bill of Rights was outlined and promised through upcoming amendments and this promise insured the victory for the Federalists in the battle to ratify the Constitution and rid the country of the crippling rule of the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution spelled out the system of government by which we have lived for years. The buildings pictured below were erected to symbolize the power of the people. They were never intended to be the final destination of selfish men interested only in their own agenda. These buildings were meant to represent the people who built them, not the men who work inside them.
Now, flash forward 226 years to today. There are some striking similarities, yet we live in a world that could not be more different from those seemingly impossible beginnings.Today, we face a heavily depleted treasury. The numbers by which it is depleted would surely bring a tear to the eyes of men like General Washington and James Madison. Daniel Shays would surely storm the iTents of the filthy-by-choice protesters in the Occupy Wall Street “communities.” His protest was brave. His protest brought about change because at it’s core, it was just. The idea of a strong central government laid out in those days was not the soul consuming machine under which we now live. Those men were brave and patriotic. They overcame selfish fear to bring about a greater good for a country they knew could exist. They were cautious and they acted with purpose. There was no self-centered grandstanding as is so prevalent today. There was simply direction. There was focus on future of country, not individual. There was concession and there was agreement. There was fear but in the end our government and our country gained legitimacy. What are we going to do with the choices before us in November of 2012? Changes are needed, but not just in the brilliantly conceived Executive Branch.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
As always, thanks for playing.
J. Robert Giles
PS: I would like to wish my grandmother, Charlene a very Happy Birthday. She was bartending at the City Tavern in Philadelphia when the delegates of the Constitutional Convention held their farewell dinner. Love you, GM!