Thursday, August 20, 2009

Our Constitution, an outstanding achievement of our American Revolution

With a new Supreme Court justice in place, as usual there’s been a lot of discussion about our Constitution.

It is often portrayed as something mysterious whose every word needs explanation. I don’t see it that way at all. The words seem simple, to the point. Of course, today when every social ill looks to the Constitution for remedy, those words have to be stretched very far.

What is the role of our Supreme Court regarding it? Do all our constitutional experts shed new light on the Constitution’s meaning? What does our Constitution really have to decide?

Even with lifetime appointments no one can predict how a justice will vote, or which cases will be hard, or if a new amendment is being loudly promoted.

Many cases submitted for constitutional review are never heard at all. A lot are sent down to lower courts, for further review.

Just four years after the end of our revolutionary war (1783), why did we need a federal government, with its operating manual, a constitution? After all, the states already had their Articles of Confederation, which I will describe as a friendship pact between them. However, some rather amazing developments had occurred. Some states had their own currencies; sometimes duties and fees were extracted from other states when their goods reached borders; obviously the situation could not continue. Worst of all, there was no way to raise revenue for general purposes, such as maintaining an army.

I know that any country without a system of reliable taxation won’t last very long. But when the concept of a Federal Republic was proposed, there was intense suspicion, some of the strongest coming from ardent patriots of the Revolution itself, for instance Patrick Henry. Any federal republic or government would only swallow up the power of the states, and grab all of it for itself. A federal government would soon become corrupt and dictatorial. Of course, the federal versus states conflict persists to this day. It occupies a lot of constitutional experts. You can just imagine what controversy it raised in 1787. After all, a huge war was just fought to liberate the colonies from the power of Great Britain.

In spite of the enormous dissent, a constitutional convention was organized in, where else, Philadelphia. Delegates were very different from the familiar leaders of our revolution. Some of the delegates were professional politicians. Many were not that well-known, or promoted. Many delegates did not even have clear directions from their colonial legislatures. The convention saw the rise of two very prominent post-revolutionaries, Hamilton and Madison. They were the outstanding architects of the Constitution.

There was no call for unanimity. If anything significant came out of this convention, it didn’t need to be ratified by every colony.

The proceedings were to be held in secret. Fear about the interference of the public rabble was one compelling reason.

In spite of strong reasons to justify the need for secrecy, I just can’t really accept it. The feeling that any government “hides” facts is very strong for the average citizen.

The concept of a Federal government got great advertising. From 1787 to 1788, The Federalist Papers by Hamilton and Madison, and to a lesser degree Jay, laid out why a Federal government would benefit the new country enormously.
The fact that the constitutional deliberations had so many problems makes the final results so outstanding. Miracle At Philadelphia, a prominent book on the proceedings, is an accurate description.

Many amendments have refined and expanded the Constitution over the years. There is nothing static about this document. This is its strength and potential weakness. A call for a new amendment crops up quite frequently. Many of these call for Congressional legislation, not the Constitution!

The final constitution was accepted by the convention on September 17, 1787. I don’t understand why this date is virtually ignored, not even noted.

That needs changing. How about a fixed – as is July 4th – holiday? Now that should be a popular idea with the American public! – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787. Catherine Drinker Bowen, an Atlantic Monthly Press Book, 1966.

From the beginning: the French and Indian War from Friends of 1776

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