We, the People . . .
We, the People of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
~ Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America
Back 100 years ago when I was in school, we had to memorize the Preamble and understand its relevance. Today’s school kids barely know what the Preamble is, much less could recite it from memory. I would bet there isn’t one teacher in fifty today that could recite it. And that, as citizens and parents, is a situation we need to correct by learning and then teaching its meaning and the story behind it.
“We, the People . .” the three most important words in the history of mankind. The promise of a new way of governance. . .something profoundly unique born in the colonies and defended by the blood of Patriots. Six long years of bloodshed, death, destruction, misery and deprivation paid the price for this opportunity for FREE men to govern themselves.
In the 10-12 years after the American Revolution, however, it was all coming undone. The states were bickering among themselves: each state considered itself independent of the others with its own laws, commerce, currency and constitution. Each state different, proud of its own character. Traveling between states was a headache. Shipping among the states was a nightmare of tariffs. Taxes were frequently demanded from multiple states for a ship traveling from one port to another. If the taxes were not paid to a state, the ship and cargo would be confiscated – no matter that taxes had already been paid to another state for the same cargo.
Something needed to be done – fast – or the dream would go up in smoke before the very eyes of the people who staked everything they had on it. So during a sweltering summer in Philadelphia, delegates from each state were to meet to revise the Articles of Confederation, the chief governing document of the time, to smooth out the wrinkles and make the government work better. But they couldn’t even agree to that.
Rhode Island refused to participate at all, Virginia delegate Patrick Henry “smelled a rat” and wouldn’t go, North Carolina refused to send a delegate and on and on.
Finally, a date was set: May 14, 1787 at the State House in Philadelphia. There needed to be at least 7 states represented to conduct business. The first day there were only 2 present; the meeting was adjourned.
They agreed to meet at 10 a.m. the next day. Same thing: no quorum present, meeting adjourned. Same thing the next day and the next day and the next day . . .
It wasn’t until May 25 that they had enough states present to begin proceedings. In all, there were 55 delegates, although they came and went, so there were seldom more than 30 there at the same time. George Washington was elected unanimously to be president of the convention. James Madison sat at the front of the room and as soon as proceedings began, he started writing. He never missed a day and if it weren’t for his diligence, we would never have known what went on in that convention hall to birth the most amazing document the world has ever seen. James Madison recorded every debate, every vote for four months. That is why he earned the honor of being called the “Father of the Constitution.”
The delegates knew there would be many arguments, and they agreed that in order to freely express themselves they would need to keep their debates and votes secret from the public so the country wouldn’t be listening in and taking sides, and newspapers wouldn’t be publishing slanted stories during the course of this monumental undertaking, no ambushing the delegates during the process nor dissecting the debates along the way. No members were to write anything down, answer questions asked outside the hall, or discuss their business with outsiders. Everyone took an oath to secrecy. And for 55 men to keep a secret for four months was astounding in itself! The doors and windows – even in the sweltering heat – were to be kept locked. The drapes were drawn. The delegates from New England in their wool suits, not used to southern climes, suffered the most in the blistering heat. To make it more miserable, the city was bombarded by huge, buzzing flies which flung themselves at the closed windows, attacked delegates as they stepped outside and invaded bedrooms, buzzing all night in such a frenzy it was hard to sleep.
Directly in front of the State House yard was a debtors’ prison. It was a 4-story building and as soon as the delegates emerged each day, the prisoners crowded against their windows and dangled long “begging” poles with a cloth cap attached to the end for collecting money. The prisoners would cry out to be noticed and, if no “donations” were forthcoming, (and how could the delegates be generous every day?), the voices turned to jeering insults and name-calling.
And so it began.
As the meetings went on, all kinds of fears surfaced. The small states feared the big states would have all the power, many feared giving direct power to the people. Some feared an “aristocracy” would surface and the rich would rule the poor as in Europe. Who would govern and how could they get rid of anyone guilty of misconduct? How would all this be paid for? How long should the terms be? What would insure fair representation for everyone? How to install checks and balances? Who was to make the laws? Who could change the laws? What about a common currency? How would trade with other nations be handled? How would they protect themselves? Where would the seat of government be located?
The debates raged day after miserable day. Some delegates quit and went home in frustration. Most knew they were deciding the fate of the nation and stuck to it. (How many of us today would have persevered?) The convention droned on and on – through the heat, the flies, the endless bickering and debate. At one point, the tension became so great that Benjamin Franklin suggested they ask a minister to start them off every day with a prayer – but they couldn’t even agree on that. North Carolina said there was no money to pay him, Hamilton said it would start ugly rumors about the convention being in deep trouble. What minister? What church?
The small states became so bitter, they threatened to break off from the rest of the country and make their own treaties with foreign nations. The South, worried about trade, threatened to secede from the whole mess. Even George Washington, not easily discouraged, despaired. His feelings must have shown on his face; people said he had his “Valley Forge” look on. It was a stalemate all around.
To their credit, however, they realized what important work they were doing. They realized that if they were ever to form a permanent government to carry the dream forward, they would have to compromise. And they did.
On September 8, the Constitution was sent to a committee to write it up in final form. Four days later, a revised and very elegant Constitution was presented to the delegates. By September 17, enough signatures had been secured to make it officially accepted, wiping out 13 separate identities and forging one nation: four pages, the likes of which the world had never seen and is still considered the roadmap to freedom in the world today. “We, the People . . .” it began.