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Historical Background

FOR GENERATIONS the people of the United States have revered the Constitution— and rightly so. It has provided an enduring and evolving framework for almost 190 years of national development. In some respects, it reflects the time of its creation, for it incorporates basic American tenets of the 18th century. These include the theory of the state as a compact between the people and the government and the idea that fundamental laws should be written. The Constitution also reaffirms the strong belief in the traditional rights of Englishmen to the protection of life, liberty, and property that Americans defended in their rebellion against Britain.

Above all, the document expresses, both in its provisions and in the process by which they were formulated, the Founding Fathers' abiding faith in man's willingness to reason—his ability to surmount political differences by means of rational discussion and compromise. Men sometimes disagree over the meaning of specific provisions of the instrument, but within its broad outlines and mechanisms for compromise lie means to reconcile disagreements. The Constitution expresses the concerns of a past age, yet it is the embodiment of a spirit and a wisdom as modern as tomorrow.

LABORING at Philadelphia from late spring until early fall in 1787, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention created a new form of government for the United States. Few of them could likely ever have imagined how successful and enduring their efforts would be, for the flexible instrument they produced to replace the Articles of Confederation has persevered through the intervening decades as the foundation of our Nation—though it has been buffeted by a civil war, two world wars, domestic conflicts, and economic depressions. During these years, amendments to and judicial clarifications of the Constitution have adapted it to a continually changing national mode of life. And today it serves as a symbol of democracy to the world, whose history it has immeasurably influenced.

The constitutional achievement is all the more remarkable when the vast social, economic, and political differences between the present age and the era of the framers are considered. While the country has evolved from a weak and basically agricultural collection of almost independent States into an industrial colossus that ranks high among the sovereign nations of the world, sweeping changes have occurred in American life, thought, and attitudes.

Living as they did in another day and serving far more restricted constituencies than our governmental representatives today, most of the Founding Fathers entertained some views that differed from our modern concept of democracy. These views reflected those of the aristocracy, the ruling-elite group to which the majority of them belonged. As legislators, politicians, lawyers, merchants, business men, planters, and landed gentry for the most part, they were predominantly conservative men of property.

Few of the Convention delegates would have acknowledged they were "democrats"; to most of them, "democracy" was virtually synonymous with "mob rule." They favored "republicanism," in which the aristocrats would be dominant. The framers were not truly seeking to establish a government under direct popular control.

Yet, though in some ways the Constitution originally demonstrated the self-interest of its creators, contained certain antidemocratic concepts, and sanctioned slavery, practically all the men who wrote it believed in the precepts of representative government and felt the people were its ultimate custodians. Thus, the document's underlying philosophy is essentially democratic.

To most of the founders, the issue was not simply "democracy" versus "republicanism" but national union versus disintegration. As pragmatic politicians for the most part rather than political theorists, they did not seek so much to impose a fixed governmental philosophy as to find a way to reconcile conflicting political and economic theories and realities within a framework that would facilitate the orderly and stable growth of the Nation and insure its security.

Americans have always revered the basic documents of the Republic. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the Declaration of Independence, are displayed in Exhibition Hall of the National Archives Building.

Actually, the motivations of the framers were as diverse and complex as those of humanity. If most of them were committed to the preservation or improvement of their own economic situation, they also sought to better that of all citizens. Some of the makers of the Constitution stood to gain financially from the fiscal stability the new Government would provide, but others stood to lose. On key issues, individuals often voted against or compromised their personal interests for what they believed to be the common good.

The delegates were also obviously swayed by their own political views and factions, the attitudes of their constituents, and the situations in their States. In a humanitarian vein, the Founding Fathers strove to foster the general welfare and prevent tyranny from any source. Psychological factors were also apparent. Frayed tempers, jealousies, animosities, ambitions, and friendships had a major impact. Many of the framers also recognized they could likely attain positions of power in the new Government. Finally, intellectual factors guided these men. They employed many logical premises and techniques, utilized rational dialogue, and drew on the lessons of history and political theory.

Exhibition Hall
Americans have always revered the basic documents of the Republic. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the Declaration of Independence, are displayed in Exhibition Hall of the National Archives Building. (National Archives)

HISTORIANS have long debated the motives and aims of the founders. Some scholars contend they were often guided by selfish or even sinister interests, particularly in the economic realm; others maintain that most of them were basically altruistic; members of a third group take positions somewhere in between the two extremes. Such dichotomy is at least partially explained by the diversities in personalities, backgrounds, and goals of the framers; incomplete biographical data; inadequacies in primary historical sources; historical semantic differences in the definition of the word "democracy"; the conflicting political and socioeconomic elements that went into the making of the Constitution; the pronounced differences between the modern and 18th-century milieus; and the biases of historians themselves.

If the Founding Fathers had a contrary intent, they nevertheless devised an instrument that ultimately resulted in a democracy. As leaders of the day, they possessed the required education and political and economic experience to understand the needs of the Nation and bring about the changes in Government so necessary for its survival. Certainly it is unlikely that the framers would have been able or willing to transcend their background and experience and prepare a document surrendering the reins of power to and reflecting the needs and desires of another group.

Legitimate channels were followed in convoking the Convention, which the Continental Congress had authorized. The only State not in attendance, Rhode Island, had rejected the invitation to take part. All the other 12 legislatures elected delegates in the approved manner. Most of these bodies, though they were not representative of the entire populace because of various voting and apportionment restrictions, were recently elected and broadly represented most areas and economic and social groups of the Nation. Furthermore the legislatures as a whole were more democratic than perhaps any other governmental assemblies in the world at the time.

The men at Philadelphia feared any form of tyranny. During their careers, a number of them had espoused human rights, protected economic and religious minorities, and sponsored anti-slavery legislation. The delegates were not totally alienated from the masses, with whom they had shoulder to shoulder recently overthrown British rule and with whom they identified in many other ways. Americans in mind and spirit, they were guided by a strong sense of public service.

Furthermore, the Founding Fathers based the proposed new government on popular, as well as State, sovereignty, though not all people were eligible to vote at the time. The Constitution left the determination of suffrage to the States, where this responsibility had been lodged. For Federal officeholders, no property qualifications were imposed and religious tests were forbidden. Titles of nobility were also prohibited, on both the State and National level. And provisions for amendment of the instrument were far easier than in the Articles of Confederation.

Then, too, the founders were aware they would submit their work to Congress for whatever action it cared to take and specified that 9 of the 13 States would need to ratify the Constitution before it went into effect. Thus, opponents gained an opportunity to voice their objections. Had this group been better represented at the Convention, perhaps the Constitution might not have been created. Some individuals in this category had been elected as delegates, but chose not to participate. Had they done so, because voting was by State and most delegations were small, they could have made a substantial mark on the proceedings. One such person, Patrick Henry, was a spokesman for a group that had slight voice at Philadelphia, the small farmers.

Representation in a democracy is never perfect. At least one-third of the country's population today does not vote. Even those people who do can never be precisely represented because of a host of social, geographic, and political factors and the existence of individual shades of sentiment on particular issues.

How could the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention conceivably have spoken equitably for all the diverse elements of the Nation? And, as a matter of fact, considering that the framers were apparently better educated, wealthier, and possessed more political experience and power than most of their fellow aristocrats, they probably even imperfectly represented their own class. Also, some of the rich delegates had come from poor or humble backgrounds and thus likely possessed some understanding of the needs and problems of this group. No blacks attended the Convention, yet some delegates vehemently argued against slavery.

The Founding Fathers were acutely aware that the fate of the Nation would probably hinge on their success or failure at the Convention. Heading a new and economically and militarily weak country that had few allies and was vulnerable to foreign and Indian intrigue or attack, they were genuinely apprehensive about national security. Autonomous acts of some of the States in the field of foreign affairs threatened to involve the country in war. Further undermining international prestige was the lack of economic stability. For all these reasons, the framers granted control over foreign relations to the Federal Government and even went so far as to risk creating a standing army—in a country where such an institution was bitterly resented because of the recent experience with the British.

Critics of the founders have formulated numerous arguments. The principal ones, some of which reflect modern attitudes and retrospective judgments, are as follows: personal economic interests clearly guided some of the delegates; the majority of them were well-to-do aristocrats; fear of social radicalism and "democracy" spurred constitutional revision, especially after Shays' Rebellion; many of the framers felt a strong central Government offered protection against majority rule; a large number doubted the stability and intelligence of the general populace; small farmers workingmen, slaves, indentured servants, women, youth, and the poor were badly represented in Philadelphia or not at all; the Constitution did not outlaw slavery, reduce its effects, nor help blacks win the rights of citizenship; Rhode Island did not take part in the Convention; New York and New Hampshire were not officially in attendance for extended periods; most creditors favored and most debtors opposed the Constitution; the bulk of the antinationalists who participated in the Convention departed before it ended; and certain aspects of the Constitution are intentionally nondemocratic.

It is also true that, though public opinion polls were not conducted in 1787, a substantial number of Americans would likely have preferred continuance of the Confederation. The central Government was only a distant and faint presence in the lives of most common men, who were inclined to resist any changes that might jeopardize their newly won freedom and whose basic allegiance was to their State governments. Furthermore, most of this group opposed any system resembling the British that would enjoy taxing power and maintain a standing army. Sharing this attitude were the State and local governments, which were not anxious to relinquish any of their powers.

WHATEVER their motivations, the Founding Fathers boldly and resourcefully created an instrument of Government that fostered the growth of a democratic and prosperous Nation. By so doing, they have earned the perpetual gratitude of the American people. Many of the men at Philadelphia had played a key role in the Revolution, and in their view they were completing it. Even though they supplanted the Articles of Confederation, which had been its product, they firmly adhered to the republican ideals that lay at its heart and have attracted the allegiance of Americans ever since. At the end of the grueling 4-month Convention, perhaps none of the delegates were fully satisfied with their accomplishments. Yet posterity has learned, and continues to relearn, their true magnitude. Today the Constitution—an emblem of the viability of our Union and a beacon to all humanity—is enshrined at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004