September 17 is Constitution Day. It marks the 232nd anniversary of the approval of the United States Constitution. The work of the Continental Congress was not ratified until nine months later and the government became operational after George Washington assumed the presidency on March 30, 1789.
The journey to ratification was not easy, however, and was only made possible by a resolute group of four patriots. By the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, and until 1789, the country was governed by the Articles of Confederation which was at best an agreement among a loose group of 13 sovereign states and — at its worst — a hybrid confederation with each state jealously protecting its own prerogatives.
The Continental Congress rarely convened and had no power to tax or regulate interstate commerce. It could not conduct an effective foreign policy, nor pay off the war debt. The country — such as it was — teetered on the verge of losing the democracy that was set in motion on July 4, 1776.
In his book, “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution,” Joseph Ellis describes the actions of four men who embarked on an arduous task to save what they had fought for in the Revolutionary War.
Diagnosing the dysfunctions
Meeting as a group, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay diagnosed the dysfunctions of the Articles of Confederation and set an agenda to manage the political process to force the Continental Congress to establish a new Constitution. But they quickly realized they could not execute this goal unless they had the support and leadership of one person — George Washington. Washington, they knew, was the only man by reputation and integrity who could lead their ideas to victory. His participation would be indispensable.
Hamilton was chosen to approach Washington as he had been Washington’s aide-de-camp throughout most of the war; the American commander at the determinant battle of Yorktown; and would eventually be the silent author of major parts of Washington’s Farewell Address. To say the least, Hamilton was Washington’s favorite and most trusted associate.
Washington was well aware of the shortcomings of the Articles and knew that special interests of the states would always limit the common good of the country. But Washington was reluctant — the time was not right, and he was concerned his reputation would be tarnished if they failed. And, he just wanted to live out his life as a farmer at his home at Mount Vernon. Ultimately, Hamilton prevailed — and Washington joined the group of four rejuvenated patriots and ultimately presided over the convention to chart a new government.
The battles and details of the convention are intriguing, and ratification was not a forgone conclusion. For example, some argued the quartet went well beyond the mandate of the convention whose goal was simply to modify the Articles of Confederation — not create an entire new charter. Groups known as Antifederalists opposed the Constitution for that reason and several more, including the assertion that the delegates only represented a well-born few; that it gave too much power to a central government; and it failed to include a bill of rights.
Approval was not assured
We know today some of the specifics of the quartet’s victory — a tripartite structure of government with a strong executive, a bicameral legislative body with proportional representation (at least in one house) and an independent judiciary. Other battles involving the sovereignty of states versus federal power, the conflict between large and small states, and the tensions over slavery were all discussed and at least partially resolved.
The final resolution, while not fully meeting the goals of the quartet and their federalist supporters, nonetheless was a victory. But the actions of the convention still needed to be ratified by nine of the 13 states.
The ratification process was lengthy, and approval was not assured. During this time, the Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, Madison and Jay to explain why such a Constitution was necessary and to serve as a debater’s handbook during the controversies.
Hamilton wrote 51 articles, Madison 26 and Jay five; three were joint efforts of Hamilton and Madison. The contents of these papers, especially some of Madison’s thoughts, reflect their cagey understanding of future events; for example, “the biggest threat to governments is factions and interest groups”; “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”; and “if men were angels, government would be unnecessary.”
The Constitution was ultimately approved on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify. Delaware was the first state and Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island were the final states to ratify.
After much debate, and extensive efforts by Madison, the Bill of Rights was approved on Dec. 15, 1791 as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution to guarantee personal freedoms and rights.