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The Constitutional Convention- The Struggle for Self-Government

The American War for Independence came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

If we back up to 1777, America’s 13 states are still deep in a fight for independence and the Second Continental Congress is in session. There, delegates from all 13 states are in attendance, and it is recognized that a national government is needed for these states to function together as The United States. The Articles of Confederation are drafted as our first form of government and in 1781, and are ratified by all 13 states.

This document focused heavily on the principle of a very weak and ineffective central government and recognizes the independence of each individual state. It makes sense why this would have been the state’s first idea of government- they are in the middle of fighting for their freedom from a tyrannical government that gave no rights to the individual or the state. The Declaration of Independence that was penned just 5 years earlier presented the revolutionary idea that all men are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. The idea of a strong central government was exactly what they didn’t want. But it didn’t take long for the newly unified states to realize that the Articles of Confederation was not going to serve this new country well. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states could create their own powers and did not have to follow the federal government if they didn’t want to. The federal government held no power to the states. Something needed to change.

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was called to order at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was proposed that amendments be added to the Articles, but it was James Madison who suggested that a new document all together was needed. They needed to return to the drawing board. As you can imagine, there was much hesitancy and push back with this idea. George Washington was chosen as the President of the Convention and ultimately agreed by telling the delegates that they needed to create the best form of government they could possibly conceive, and that “The event was in the hands of God.”

The Constitutional Convention was in session from May 1787 to September of 1787, when 39 of the 55 delegates signed the new United States Constitution on September 17. This new Constitution came about largely because of a miracle that took place during the months of the Convention, that we will address in a later post. Plans were presented by delegates, such as the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. Each of these plans had a very different idea on how representation should work, which resulted in the Connecticut Compromise, which is reflected in how the people are represented in the House of Representatives, vs the Senate. Another very important facet of the new Constitution was the idea of checks and balances. The federal government would be divided into three branches- The Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. With checks and balances, no one branch could become more powerful than the other two. Alexander Hamilton said it best in the Federalist Papers 51-

“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

The Constitution opens with the Preamble- “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

A government for the people, by the people and of the people.

It was and is a truly remarkable idea that has given the United States the blessings of prosperity and freedom for all who choose to work for it. These ideals must be upheld and fought for with each passing generation.

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