The bicentennial of the drafting of the United States Constitution has brought forth numerous important books about the backgrounds and history of this document central to the nature and very existence of this country. Noteworthy among these are, in addition to William Peters’ work, Forrest McDonald’s Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985) and Michael Kammen’s A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986). A number of other studies, such as Leonard W. Levy’s The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment (1986), concentrate on specific aspects of this document. Yet the two hundredth anniversary of the Constitution seems to have elicited far less excitement, both within the publishing industry and among the public, than that of the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier.
Indeed, the Constitution always has taken second place to the Declaration in the imagination of Americans. Fireworks, parades, and speeches mark July 4; September 17 passes unnoticed. The general impression suggests that the break from Britain created a new nation, and the Constitution is merely an owner’s manual indicating how the country is to operate.
Yet as Peters clearly demonstrates, the Declaration of Independence and the successful Revolutionary War that followed did not in fact lead directly to the creation of a single, united country. Rather, the Treaty of Paris (1783) recognized the independence of thirteen former colonies joined loosely under the Articles of Confederation. The weak central government could not enforce its decisions even in those rare instances when it could reach one. Fourteen delegates—two each from seven of the thirteen states—were needed for a quorum, but states and representatives alike took so casual a view of the Confederation Congress that often that body was paralyzed for weeks at a time because it could not muster even this small number of members. All thirteen states had to agree to any amendment of the Articles; every such attempt failed.
The lack of unity among the states became increasingly and embarrassingly obvious. In 1765, Christopher Gadsden, urging the colonies to work together, had declared, “There ought to be no New England man, no New Yorker . . . but all of us Americans.” Even the experience of fighting together for seven years against a common foe had failed, however, to effect that desideratum. New York imposed a fee on every ship entering its waters from New Jersey and Connecticut or leaving its ports for its neighboring states. New Jersey taxed New York for a lighthouse on Sandy Hook. Connecticut levied higher duties on goods imported from Massachusetts than on those that came from Britain. Recognizing the danger, George Washington wrote to James Madison early in 1787,Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other and all tugging at the federal head will soon bring ruin on the whole, whereas a liberal and energetic constitution, well guarded and closely watched to prevent encroachments, might restore us to that degree of respectability and consequence to which we had a fair claim and the brightest prospect of attaining.
Prompted by the obvious deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation and the growing dissension within as well as among the states, Congress on February 21, 1787, called for a convention to revise the existing constitution. The meeting would begin in Philadelphia on May 14.
Attendance at the State House in Philadelphia on that date highlighted the inability of the states to cooperate and the weakness of the Confederate Congress to secure obedience to its requests. Only two states, Pennsylvania and Virginia, had enough delegates to vote, and only two others were represented at all. In the preceding year at Annapolis, a mere dozen delegates had showed up to discuss the pressing issue of trade regulations, and the conference had been forced to adjourn without accomplishing anything. The gathering in Philadelphia seemed likely to be similarly stillborn. Rhode Island refused to send representatives, and prominent figures such as Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams opposed the enterprise. Not until May 25 did enough delegates arrive to provide a quorum; even then only one person—Rufus King—from the four New England states was present.
If holding a convention at all was a near thing, as the Duke of Wellington said of the...
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