"We don't yearn for trivial sound bites and empty rhetoric, but for truth, wisdom and understanding." This comment was in a Hays Daily News letter to the editor recently and was as true in the early days of our country as it is in our world today. An example of "truth, wisdom and understanding" is to be found in our Constitution of the United States and in the history of its creation.
As we hear of the struggles of the government in Iraq to produce a constitution, we need to be reminded that this is no easy or uncomplicated task. Our Constitution of the United States came about only with intense and often heated debate. It was a tremendous effort to put together a document that satisfied the diverse opinions of each state and statesman.
If we look back to 1776 after the 13 colonies had declared their independence from England, the struggle is evident. While still at war, the colonies drafted a compact that was to bind them together as a nation. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were adopted by a congress of the states in 1777, signed in July 1778, and ratified in March three years later. But the Articles did not give the central government authority to raise revenue, regulate commerce or enforce treaties. These inadequacies resulted in years of weakness and chaos.
So in February 1787, the legislative body of the republic, the Continental Congress, called for the states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the articles and remedy the problems.
On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted on July 4, 1776.
Fifty-five outstanding leaders realized that revising the articles would not correct the problems. James Madison, "the father of the Constitution," arrived early with the blueprint for a new framework for a national government. George Washington, hero of the Revolution, presided over the convention. Among other famous people attending were Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and Alexander Hamilton. The oldest member was 81 and the youngest 28 years old.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were serving as America's envoys to France and England and were not present; John Jay was busy as secretary of foreign affairs of the Confederation. Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, who believed that the existing government structure was sound, did not attend.
After much work, a committee was appointed in late July to draft a document based on the agreements that had been reached. The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected government, directly responsive to the will of the people. It would include new ideas but also centuries of experience of British government, the colonies experience and the debated ideas of the Continental Congress.
The Declaration of Independence directed principles for self-government and fundamental human rights. The writings of European political philosophers John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu were also influential.
The concept of self-government was not an original American idea. But the commitment of the United States to "we the people" rule was unusual and even revolutionary, in comparison with other governments around the world.
For the first time in history, a constitution specifically limited the powers that the federal government could exercise over its citizens and still guaranteed the freedoms Americans cherish and that our founding fathers envisioned.
The issue of states' rights threatened to end the convention efforts. The Great Compromise, written by Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman, called for proportional representation in the House, and one representative per state in the Senate (later changed to two.) This compromise passed 5 to 4, with one state, Massachusetts, "divided," and probably saved the Constitutional Convention, and, probably, the Union.
After another month of discussion and rewriting, a second committee, headed by Morris, submitted the final version for signing on Sept. 17, 1787. Not all delegates were pleased with the results.
The lack of any bill of rights resulted in resistance from those who thought that the rights of the individual must be specifically spelled out. George Mason, who had written the Declaration of Rights of Virginia, refused to sign the document because he thought individual rights were not sufficiently protected.
Of the 39 who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied. Franklin accepted the Constitution, though he hesitated about several parts. Franklin, 81 years old, was the oldest member signing and required help, as he was in ill health. As he signed, tears streamed down his face.
The new document, the Constitution, was officially adopted March 4, 1789. Its 4,400 words are the shortest constitution in the world and also the oldest. It was "penned" by a Pennsylvania printer for $30. The population of the United States at that time was 4 million.
By the time the first Congress convened, the need for a document guaranteeing individual rights was keenly felt. Congress lost little time drafting the first 10 amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights. They were approved as a block by Congress in September 1789 and ratified by 11 states by the end of 1791. They remain intact today as they were written more than 200 years ago.
The authors of the Constitution knew that changes would be needed from time to time if the Constitution were to endure.
A dual process by which the Constitution could be revised was devised. The Congress, by a two-thirds vote in each house, could initiate an amendment, or the legislatures of two-thirds of the states could ask Congress to call a national convention to discuss and draft amendments that must have the approval of three-fourths of the states before they enter into force.
This method provided for a process of change that would not allow ill-conceived amendments but would be responsive to the will of the majority of the people. The Constitution has been amended 26 times since 1789.
In 1819 John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote that our constitution is: "... a constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs."
And so it has proven to be. The simplicity and flexibility of the Constitution was so wisely constructed that it has provided the basis for political stability, individual freedom, economic growth and social progress. It was no easy task to develop the Constitution of the United States, the supreme law of our country, but it is a wonderful example of "truth, wisdom and understanding." Long may it endure.
Ruth Moriarity, Hays, is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.