Tuesday, Sept. 18, 1787.
It’s likely few, if any, of the 2.7 million or so citizens of the 13 states that comprised the United States of America then woke up knowing they were living in a brave, new world, but they were. For just the day before, Sept. 17, in Philadelphia, the delegates of the 13 states to the Constitutional Convention signed off on a new constitution to be sent to the states for ratification, pulling back the curtain on the modern era.
The document they had been hammering out since arriving in Philadelphia earlier that spring in May ultimately would replace the Articles of Confederation the 13 former colonies had adopted after the defeat of Great Britain at Yorktown. The confederation had proved too weak to hold together, as debates over the 13 states’ debt, a unified foreign policy and relations between the states themselves led to an untenable political stalemate. States sent delegates to Philadelphia to try to rework the Articles, but those delegates soon decided that what was needed was an entirely new political arrangement.
What those men created would go down in human history as one of the most important political documents ever written: the Constitution of the United States of America.
The document the delegates crafted reflected their experiences with British colonial rule. They saw a government that imposed its will on its subjects, subjects who had no say who was elected to Parliament in Westminster Palace. And it was this lack of direct representation that had formed the basis for the Revolution a decade earlier.
But the delegates also more than a little wary of direct democracy in which majority rule carried the day. Period. They feared the power of the populist mob and wanted to devise some way to rein it in and to protect minority rights.
The government they constructed in the Constitution is ingenious. First, power is divided among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Then further divided in the legislative branch between two chambers, one based solely on a state’s population and the other on uniform representation for each member state. The executive balances out the legislative which balances out the judicial ... a constant striving to achieve political balance.
It wasn’t executed perfectly; 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights were added within a few years and a civil war fought less than a century later over chattel slavery. Today, 232 years later, both the nation and the document continue to evolve.
But that’s the magic of this unique document: In a mere 4,543 words, these men created the blueprint for nations in the following two centuries whose people were striving for freedom and self-determination. Though it has been stretched almost to the breaking point on numerous occasions, it speaks to the strength of the ideas it expresses that both America and its Constitution survive to this day.