"we the people" -- 9/17/21

Today's selection -- from Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. Today is the anniversary of the vote to approve the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution was a radical document in its day. One of the founding principles, "that the government of the United States exists to serve the people, not the people to serve the government," was revolutionary:

"The Framers were intelligent, even brilliant men; they knew their history and their law. The Constitution they forged was then the pinnacle of thousands of years of political development. They were familiar with, and could draw on, such sources and models as the Greek philosophers, the Roman republic, and the evolution of the English democratic tradition running from the Magna Carta through Parliament and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Above all, in the Constitution -- and earlier, in the Declaration -- they embodied the triumph of the Enlightenment, that glorious flowering of ideas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that elevated the powers of human reason and strove for new forms of government, free tyranny. The philosophies they were striving to fulfill had been expressed by such giants of the age as Hume, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Kant. They were all familiar to the Framers, and these ideas contributed to the heady debate, a debate that centered on the ongoing struggle between liberty and democracy, two ideas that often clash.

"As for debate, there was plenty. Even with the broad outlines agreed upon, major differences cropped p at every turn. It took nearly six hundred separate votes to settle them all. These were not small matters of detail, either, but large questions that might have altered the course of the nation. For instance, New York's Alexander Hamilton, one of the staunchest advocates of powerful central government and the chief representative of northern commercial interests -- he was one of the founders of the Bank of New York -- wanted the president and the Senate appointed for life. He also argued for giving the 'first class,' the wealthy men of America, among whom he could certainly be counted 'a distinct permanent share of the government.'

"Hamilton's suggestion was turned down, but the Constitution did not provide for direct elections, except for the House of Representatives, where it was still left to the states to determine who voted. Property ownership was the key qualification in almost every state. And of course, women, Indians, and blacks -- free or slave -- had no vote. It is simple to dismiss even that basic decision as the result of sexism and racism. But, again, the temper of the times must be considered. In a period in which class differences were so clearly delineated, though less so in America than in Europe, it may have been inconceivable for these men to consider allowing just anyone to vote. They took as an article of faith that to participate responsibly in a democracy required education and the measure of property that would allow one the leisure to read and think. That said, however, they also did everything they could to make sure that women, Indians, blacks, and the white poor would be excluded from obtaining such education and property.

"The final form of the Constitution, prepared by New York's Gouverneur Morris, was put to a vote on September 17, 1787. Thirty - nine of the delegates present voted in favor; three were opposed. Another thirteen of the principals were absent, but seven of these were believed to favor the Constitution. It was sent on to Congress, which decided to submit the document to the states for ratification, with the approval of nine states needed for passage.

"For any and all of the Constitution's flaws -- as well as those of the men who wrote it -- this document was, and remains, a remarkable achievement. As Leonard W. Levy argues in Original Intent and the Framers' Constitution, 'The Constitution lacks the eloquence and passion of the Declaration of Independence, although the opening of the Preamble, "We the People," summons forth the still radically democratic idea that the government of the United States exists to serve the people, not the people the government. That is fundamental to the Framers' original intent, as is the related idea that government in the United States cannot tell us what to think or believe about politics, religion, art, science, literature or anything else; American citizens have the duty as well as the right to keep the government from falling into error, not the other way around.'"

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Kenneth C. Davis


Don't Know Much About History




Copyright 2011, 2020 by Kenneth C. Davis


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