Considering Constitution Day
In the summer of 1787, a very peculiar thing happened. Fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and, after a long, arduous debate, crafted the oldest national constitution still in use today. The Constitution has survived a civil war, two world wars, numerous recessions, and laid a stable foundation for America to emerge as a military and economic powerhouse whose cultural contributions can be felt across the globe.
Or so goes the popular legend. As a nation, we have a natural tendency to reify the architects of our government, to the point of capitalizing ‘Founders’ in textbooks. An air of mystique lays over those heady days in 1787, when a young nation—emboldened by is victory against Great Britain, but beset by European opportunism, economic concerns, and rebellious citizens—made an irrevocable statement about the fundamental relationship between government and the governed. We often picture high-minded debate, principled discussion, and rousing speeches, and we typically view the Founding Fathers as fair-minded sages working to build a nation that would stand the test of time.
But the reality is considerably more nuanced. The Pennsylvania Statehouse, for instance, was not an intellectual temple: it was a hot place that sweltered in the warm mid-Atlantic sun. The stench of open lavatories in an attached yard often permeated the proceedings. Due to the quality of roads, many states—particularly those in New England—were tardy and entered deliberations midstream. Rhode Island didn’t even come, and many representatives left without signing the document because they did not approve of its final contents.
Several items on the agenda were never addressed because time ran short. Our records of the proceedings are somewhat incomplete—or, at the very least, biased—because the secretary did not do his job particularly well, forcing us to rely heavily on James Madison’s accounts. According to some historians, Maryland delegate Luther Martin may have been drunk through at least some of the event. And at one point in the original text, Pennsylvania is spelled wrong.
Despite our deeply-held desires to think otherwise, the Constitutional Convention was not entirely a scholarly exchange of high-minded academic discourse. The process of drafting the document was a highly contentious one, built on argument as much as compromise and self-interest as much as principle. Some delegates, like James Madison, arrived in Philadelphia with hopes of forging a unified democratic nation. But most delegates came to represent the particular interests of their states. They came ready to fight for their home regions, and fought over questions, such as: Should representation be apportioned by population, or on the basis of equality? Should slaves be weighted in calculating the level of representation? What is the necessary balance between majority rule and minority rights? Should there be a single chief executive, and how powerful should such an individual be?
In grappling with these questions, the Convention often more resembled a street fight between rival sectionalist gangs than a gentle scholarly discussion in a park. And yet, despite the mythology that surrounds the Convention, such conflict should not be viewed as somehow ‘un-American.’ As Alexis de Tocqueville would later comment, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
And there were many faults, including a lack of protections for individual rights and liberties, the tacit acknowledgement of the practice of slavery, a system for electing Senators that enabled large corporate interests such as railroads to dominate state politics, the possibility of electing a President and Vice President who loathed one another, and a Supreme Court imbued with poorly-defined authority.
But the strength of the Constitution—and, indeed, our nation—resides in its ability to adapt through legally-established processes. Faults have been corrected, at least in part. The Bill of Rights laid the foundation for individual rights and liberties. A bloody civil war and subsequent Constitutional Amendments ended the legal practice of slavery. Senators are now elected directly by their citizens rather than state legislatures that are subject to capture by powerful interests. Presidents and Vice Presidents are almost guaranteed to come from the same party, and the concept of judicial review has given the Supreme Court wide-ranging powers to check the powers of the executive and legislative branches.
The work, of course, of forming “a more perfect union” has been as jumbled and confused as the Convention where our government was born. At times, the march toward greater social justice has been slow—too slow, often, by any moral standard. At times, even, we move backward; one needs only glance at the cover of any newspaper to confirm that America is not always a fair, just, or peaceful place. Yet we have also shown an ability to move forward and change for the better, step by painful step, not because America is a high-minded paradise of intellectual exchange, but because our nation’s institutions were built to accept disagreement, encourage discourse, and channel self-interested conflict into policy outcomes.
The American experience is one of imperfection rather than perfection, which, logically speaking, implies that progress is always possible. And we, as the citizenry of a democracy, are responsible for pushing our elected representatives toward making that progress. We do so not as scholars in an ivory tower reflecting upon Aristotelian principles of truth and beauty, but as people with mortgages, families, pets, and credit card debt. We speak to one another honestly and freely, with the hope of either advancing our own interests or arriving at some mutually acceptable understanding. If a somewhat cynical analysis of the Constitutional Convention tells us anything, it is that this is how public discourse is supposed to work.
As ugly as political discourse can be, it is a necessity if this nation is to persist. Make no mistake: there are challenges ahead, as there have always been. Income inequality is staggering. Shortfalls in state and local budgets continue to negatively impact our educational systems. Trust in government is falling and political deadlock is becoming normal. As a citizenry, it is imperative that we toss our hat into the ring and push for something better.
Political scientist Robert Dahl describes the United States not as a democracy, but as a polyarchy. A polyarchy, simply put, is a state ruled by more than one. He contrasts this with democracy, which is a state in which all citizens rule. We live in a polyarchy, not a democracy. But the imperfect nature of our circumstances—echoing our imperfection as humans, of which the Founders were acutely aware—should compel us to attempt to change our surroundings. We should remember we are not yet done.
Democracy is a dream, a promise, and a journey, and though the work of that summer in 1787 might have set us upon that path, and we have made tremendous progress over the intervening years, that work is not done. It’s up to us - all of us - to continue the journey.
May you spend this Constitution Day happily and healthily, but also reflectively, for there is much more work to do.
Dr. Alexander Cohen
Academic Department Chair, Social Science Department
The University of Arizona Global Campus – San Diego, CA
Dr. Michael Wiseman
Associate Professor, Social Sciences
The University of Arizona Global Campus – Clinton, IA
published September 2014