September 17, 2009 marks the 222nd anniversary of the day 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed their names to their completed document and, in a burst of what can only be called skeptical optimism, sent the Constitution to the states for formal ratification. (My home state of Maryland, I’m pleased to say, while it made a generally poor showing at the Convention itself—two of its five delegates didn’t even sign the thing — was the seventh state to ratify, officially approving the document on April 26, 1788.)
Constitution Day is one of those holidays like Flag Day—it gets a mention on most pre-printed calendars, but we rarely stop to reflect on what the day actually means. I want you to do so today, if only for a moment.
Just before the Constitution was signed, Benjamin Franklin asked to make a few remarks—which the ailing Franklin would have read aloud by fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson. Franklin had issues with the Constitution, but indicated he would support and sign the document, for “having lived long,” he said, “I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.” In other words, even Ben Franklin can get it wrong from time to time.
The next part of Franklin’s speech is, I think, particularly appropriate today, given the increasingly rancorous partisan bickering that not only makes tempers flare, but also makes it seemingly impossible to agree on anything:
Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right.”
Ultimately, said Franklin, “I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”
You can see Franklin’s statement in its entirety here.
If you’re looking for a good read on the Constitutional Convention, I’m going to buck the trend here and recommend David O. Stewart’s The Summer of 1787 over Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle At Philadelphia. While Bowen’s book will probably always be the definitive version of events, I like Stewart’s decision to concentrate on personalities and politics, and not just process. And I say that not because David’s a friend, but because it’s the truth.
And once you finish reading about the creation of the Constitution, the Library of America will give you the rest of the story in two gorgeous volumes, The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification. As I said of these books years ago, if you think that mud-slinging, negative campaigning, and assaults on the integrity of the opponent are modern day creations, you’ll need to think again. Our 18th century pundits could be just as nitpicky, petty, and ascerbic as their present day decendants. And they did it all in more than 140 characters.
Finally, pause for a moment and remember the Founding Fathers who created the greatest system of government in the world–and did it in only four pages, no less. We have a tendency to elevate our Founders to near-mythical status—just as Thomas Jefferson (who was not at the Convention) called those in attendance an “assembly of demigods.” But the truth is, they were something much more wonderful, much more interesting: human beings. They bickered, they politicked, they called each other names, they rushed through work when they wanted to go home, and yes, just as politicians do today, they postured and swaggered, even behind closed doors.
But they could also listen, compromise, see the greater good, argue persuasively, and write beautifully — and those qualities, ultimately, are what make the Constitution such a wonderfully human — and, in this case, uniquely American — invention. And thanks to them, that unique invention is all yours. Take good care of it.
Let’s go out on a little something for my fellow Gen Xers: