On a spring day, 55 men walked from a cobblestone street into the Pennsylvania state house. They had important business to discuss, and guards kept watch to keep any curious people at bay. The men, all respected, half university-educated, had an average age of 42 years old. The youngest was a mere 27. In their first order of business, they formally nominated one man to be their leader: General George Washington.
This was the scene 225 years ago when our Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia. The 13 colonies had declared and won independence from King George, and were operating under a “league of friendship” or the Articles of Confederation. They knew that the fledgling nation was tinkering on failure: it could not regulate commerce between the states, raise revenue, or support a national defense. A few months before, a man named Daniel Shays had led a group of farmers, who wore hats adorned with twigs, to rebel in Massachusetts. The new nation had some trouble spots of anarchy. Something had to be done.
Over the next few days, the men debated in secret. There was no transparency, no reporters and no visitors. Men from large states, like Edmund Randolph of Virginia, argued for a strong national government, while men from smaller states, like William Patterson of New Jersey, balked at this. Alexander Hamilton of New York tried to convince his colleagues to follow the British government “the best in the world” – a mistake to a group of proud patriots who had just defeated King George III. Their differing ideas led to compromises and a new government. Largely influenced by James Madison, credited as the Father of the Constitution, a Constitution was written that established three separate branches of government on the federal level, a decentralized national government with enumerated powers and individual state governments empowered with those powers not outlined. It was built on a system of federalism, a system of separation of powers between the states and the federal union.
The fact that 55 men showed up was something of a feat in and of itself. 74 were appointed to attend, but 19 chose to skip the meeting. They were wise in their suspicions that the goal was to give the national government more power, but missed a tremendous opportunity to shape the nation that they all loved.
16 men refused to sign the Document. One of them was firebrand orator Patrick Henry (my favorite of all of the Founders). He refused to sign the Document because it contained no “Bill of Rights.” Another, George Mason, declared that he “would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” Yet, the Document was signed by 39 men, and they left Philadelphia with the challenge of convincing the states to ratify it. Largely thanks to the efforts of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, through the Federalist Papers, the required nine states had ratified and the Constitution took effect.
Two years later, James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in the U.S. House of Representatives, outlining specific rights that each American should be guaranteed and limiting what government could do to the people. Without the Bill of Rights, we would not be the America that we are today. It guarantees that we can live in a country where we can speak our opinions without fearing punishment; where you can practice the religion of your choice in peace; where you have the right to share your ideas or complaints with the government; where you have certain inalienable rights – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
On September 17, we celebrated Constitution Day, a national holiday that celebrates the one document that has made America what it is today: the land of the free and the home of the brave. In the 225 years since the signing of this great document, this nation has grown, adding territories and states, including Texas in 1845 (by 1 vote, I must say). What was in 1787 a new nation trying to get on its feet and find its way, is today a robust beacon of freedom and democracy. May we never forget what this nation stands for. And that’s just the way it is.