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How did American citizens come up with the idea of a constitution anyway? Today, we are so accustomed to the government we have based on separation of powers into three branches that we often forget that the delegates to the constitutional convention had some fierce debates over these arrangements. They were very much aware of historical events both in ancient times and in their own recent past.
On the one hand, there were those who wanted democracy to play a part, but had difficulty in deciding just how large a part it should be. Some feared a revolt like that of the poor farmers who took part in Shay’s Rebellion. Democracy in the eyes of these citizens was not really desirable. But as has happened many times in our history, a strong, confident speaker stepped forward to make a stand for the people. It was one George Mason, and he was in favor of allowing the people to elect representatives to the larger branch of government.
He gained support from James Madison and James Wilson, who believed that the federal government should have a large base rather than the smaller one which Roger Sherman and Eldridge Gerry supported. Upon this decision is based the famous words in the Preamble to our Constitution: “We the people of the United States.”
The weather was hot outside, and it matched some hot tempers to be found inside the hall. When things began to turn negative, Benjamin Franklin suggested an appeal to “the Father of lights.” He even made a personal profession of faith: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” In my opinion, we ought to remember this today.
Of course, there had to be a debate about the amount of wealth that presidential candidates could possess. Charles Pinckney proposed that the president should be worth at least $100,000, but this amount would have made George Washington ineligible, according to some, and nobody wanted that calamity. The manner of electing the president continued under discussion. It became evident that compromise would have to come into play.
Here was the problem. The delegates desired George Washington to be the chief executive, and they didn’t even designate the number of terms for him. But they were worried about a general conflict which might break out between the states at the end of his presidency because they would each have a favorite son to propose for the presidency. They were actually fearful that bloodshed might occur. To settle things, they provided for a final election by the House of Representatives, where the voting would be by states, a majority of states being necessary for election.
We might think that compromise would lead to a more general feeling of trust in each party, but it didn’t work out that way. In fact, the more compromises that were struck, the more the difference between the delegates who wanted a strictly national plan and the ones who could support a mixture of powers became. It became obvious that there would be a document which was not perfect and that the purpose of the convention had to be to come up with as good a constitution as might get accepted by the various states. Those who championed the national point of view would have to cooperate with those who stood up for states rights.
So this is the way we arrived at a constitutional government. But there were those who were very skeptical and who sneered at the document as too much of a mixture. A perfectionist could point out a democratic principle one place with an aristocratic one and an authoritarian one in another. It was easy to see that the Convention was made up of a combination of left brainers and right brainers. Personally, I like it that way. I am very proud that our forefathers tried to see things from more than one perspective. If we can’t agree with every decision they made, we can certainly see that this meeting which was called the Federal Convention of 1787 and was referred to thereafter as the Constitutional Convention turned out to be the place where a document was created which was not titled the National Constitution but instead the Constitution of the United States.
Written to honor Constitution Week and James Blair Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. Facts cited from Samuel Eliot Morison’s “The Oxford History of the American People.”
Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Want to “Soundoff” on this column? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org