On September 17, 1787, after weeks of often bitter debate by delegates of the States gathered at the Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Constitution of the United States, beginning with the words, “We, the People,” was signed by thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates. The world was changed forever as America began its “great experiment “in self-government.
Never before had a constitution been established in the name of “the People” of a nation, rather than by and in the name of a monarch, a state, or other governmental power. Many of the most erudite thinkers of the so-called “Age of Enlightenment,” did not believe that a constitutional republic of limited government “by, for, and of the people” could survive in a broad land containing a large and diverse population. America is still an ongoing experiment in liberty.
The Constitutional Convention had commenced on May 14, 1787, with a challenge to the conscience and integrity of delegates by George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army which had won the Revolutionary war. Washington, then and now the model American patriot, was elected President of the Constitutional Convention by unanimous vote.
“If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the Hand of God,” said Washington, who would later become the First President of the United States and be regarded as “the Father of his country.”
The delegates were learned American patriots who had studied history deeply to meet the task of creating a constitution fit for a free people. Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence but did not participate in the Constitutional Convention because he was in Paris representing the United States, wrote of the delegates with utmost respect as “a gathering of demigods.”
The Constitution the framers wrought in the name of “We, the People,” was one creating a government of expressly limited powers – a limited federal government of not a national government of self-expanding powers.
The subsequently adopted “Bill of Rights,” contained in the First Ten Amendments, for which the efforts of James Madison earned him recognition as “the Father of the Constitution,” begins with five words limiting powers of the federal government over the people:
“Congress shall make no law…,” respecting an establishment of religion nor abridging the fundamental rights of free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of petition for redress of grievance. These are rights which the Founding Fathers believed Americans were “endowed by their Creator,” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That is, the Founders believed these were natural rights, rights granted by the “hand of God, not the hand of a generous government,” as the late President John F. Kennedy would express it.
The Ninth and Tenth Amendments reinforced the words “Congress shall make no law…” by mandating that the people and the states retained all rights not enumerated as possessed by the central government.
Never before in history had “We, the people,” had their natural rights so expressly protected by a constitution so expressly limiting the government as to its powers. By changing the relationship of the people and their government, limiting the power of government and making the retained rights of the people superior, the Founding Fathers changed the world. Ever after, the people of the world who have dreamed of the freedoms of Americans have looked to the values expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution, as a model for liberty in a constitutional republic.
The framers of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers of America, were faced with a great challenge, and they met it. The Constitution which they framed was finally ratified by all states by January 10, 1791. It has now endured for 224 years since it was signed on Sept. 17, 1787.
“What kind of government have you given us, Mr. Franklin,” an American woman asked Founding Father Benjamin Franklin at the close of the convention.
“A republic, Madam,” Ben Franklin replied. “If you can keep it.”
That, the keeping of the free constitutional republic that the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us, is our challenge.
We owe a great debt to all those Founding Fathers and other Americans who came before us who preserved our freedom. We pay that debt by what we do to preserve freedom for those Americans who will come after us.
[Rees Lloyd is a longtime civil rights attorney, a veteran’s activist, and a member of the Victoria Taft Show Blogforce.]