Is our Constitution outdated? We hear similar thoughts spoken and debated by overpaid and wordy talk show hosts. Do they really know of what they speak? Or are they simply attempting to impress their captive audience? I only know how insufficient my knowledge is of this great document and how humbling it is to even attempt writing about it.
Perhaps they should ask this question: Truth, religious freedom, freedom of speech -- Are these outdated and no longer useful? I do not believe so.
If we take a look at the time, the knowledge, the writings and yes, even the arguments and downright disagreements that went into the finalization of the writing of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I am amazed. I can shake my head in disagreement at the thought that any of the pundits of today would be able to improve upon this amazing document. That has already been taken care of anyway by the ability to amend what might be in question. It was no small job to prepare the Constitution of the United States for ratification for 13 rather diverse states that valued the rights of their individual state governing body.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union that had been adopted by a congress of the states in 1777, signed in July 1778 and ratified in March 1782 did not give the central government authority to raise revenue, regulate commerce or enforce treaties. These inadequacies had resulted in years of weakness and chaos, and prevented the government from becoming a world power. The best minds of our young country realized a strong central government was needed. So in February 1787, the Continental Congress, the legislative body of the republic, called for the states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the articles and remedy the problems.
The date and place was set, but it was kind of like throwing a party and having only a few show up on time. Yes, only eight delegates were present at the opening session May 14, 1786 -- four from Virginia (one of which was George Washington) and four from Pennsylvania (one was Benjamin Franklin). Washington was not very happy with the situation -- no quorum meant no meeting, no remedy. James Madison soothed Washington with the bad weather excuse but he surely must have been nervous as to how things would proceed.
By May 25, nine states were represented in Philadelphia with 30 members present. This constituted the quorum for seven of the 13 states, so they were able to proceed. The Constitutional Convention then convened in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted on July 4, 1776.
On May 28, Washington was unanimously elected president of the convention. William Jackson, who had been born in England, was appointed as secretary to keep records and the minutes. As a youth, his parents had died and he was sent to South Carolina to be raised by a family friend. He entered the military when he was 16 years old and served until 1783. He was not a voting member of the Continental Congress, but he was in agreement that the existing Articles of Confederation prevented the government from being able to be effective.
Questions of quorum, protocol and courtesy took time, but eventually the voting rules were decided upon. Robert's Rules of Order had not yet been formulated, so a committee had been formed to determine how parliamentary procedure would be practiced. A rule of secrecy, though not unanimously agreed upon, provided for honest discussion and team building as opposed to grandstanding and personal attention that could happen.
The delegates finally arrived and got to work in earnest. They soon realized revising the Articles would not correct the problems that existed. James Madison, "the Father of the Constitution," had already become aware of this problem and had arrived early at the convention with a blueprint for a new framework for a national government.
On May 29, the Virginia plan was introduced, which would be challenged by the June 11 New Jersey plan and followed by the Connecticut plan June 29. Proposals for and against continued until July 16, when delegates finally agreed after all the presentations of plans and compromises had been dealt with. Thus the Connecticut Compromise, as it was known, decided the composition of the popular representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate of the general governmental bicameral representation of the legislature.
The summer commenced with many more discussions, proposals and disagreements of governance. With curtains drawn and no air conditioning during the Philadelphia heat, a draft for the Constitution was finally drawn up by committee. After rewriting that draft, a second committee, headed by Gouverneur Morris, submitted the final version for signing on Sept. 17, 1787. The framers had come up with what they thought was the best plan - a framework for a republic government. The Constitution was not meant to cover every question would arise, for they knew that changes would occur over time. Details could be better taken care of through laws or occasional amendment -- not at the whim of individuals whose desire was not for the common good. The lack of any bill of rights resulted in resistance from those who felt that the document did not protect individual rights. Of the 39 who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied. The only vote that day was when the delegates voted to adjourn.
"The business being thus closed," Washington wrote in his diary, "the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other."
By the time the first Congress would convene, the need for a document guaranteeing individual rights was recognized. Congress lost little time drafting the first 10 amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights. They remain intact today as they were written more than 200 years ago. We can discuss whether or not our Constitution is pertinent to our times, but should the times determine what we believe? Or are not truth, justice and the rights expressed in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights still of monumental importance in our lives as Americans today and indeed for all days?
Ruth Moriarity is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.