We celebrate the Fourth of July, aka Independence Day, with fireworks and bombastic patriotism. But it took more than a decade following the Declaration of Independence in 1776 for our revered Founding Fathers to cobble together a real constitution and set a functioning nation on its course.
By the 1780s, it was clear that the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” wasn’t working. Drafted by the Second Continental Congress in 1776-1777 and finally ratified by the thirteenth state in 1781, our nation’s first constitution set up a federal government that could print money that was worthless, could borrow money but couldn’t pay it back, was spectacularly ineffective in collecting taxes – individual states paid only what they felt like paying – and had little means of dealing as a sovereign nation with foreign powers.
The Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787. Its stated purpose was to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” Virginia and Pennsylvania were were the only states to show up. Deliberations finally began on May 25 with seven states, a quorum, represented. Eventually twelve states took part; Rhode Island, opposed to a strong central government, thumbed its nose at the gathering.
Census-taking was a contentious issue from the very beginning. Population of the various states determined representation and distribution of Federal largesse, such as it was. Southern states did not want the more populous North to control the government; they wanted non-citizens, i.e. slaves, counted. Eventually the delegates reached a compromise: a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
It took a year. The new constitution was ratified by the required nine states on June 21, 1788. The Continental Congress voted on September 13 – eleven states had ratified by then – to begin the new government, effective March 4, 1789. The initial meeting of both the House of Representatives and the Senate were immediately adjourned for lack of a quorum. George Washington was inaugurated as the first President on April 30. And Rhode Island? The tiniest state finally ratified the constitution on May 29, 1790.
The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791, as promised during the 1788 debates by supporters to gain the support of doubters who were concerned about a too-powerful centralized government. Among the rights enumerated are a prohibition of religious favoritism, guarantee of a speedy and public trial, and the necessity of a well-regulated militia.
And so the representative-democracy experiment continues. Can we avoid sliding into autocracy?