Constitution Day

September 17, 2008

FIRE is fortunate to have its headquarters situated directly on Sixth Street across from Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia. It’s a fitting location, considering our mission, and on the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, it’s appropriate to reflect on what happened right across the street two hundred twenty-one years ago today.

The nascent Constitution sought to hold together a young nation enervated by war with the greatest power of the time and by blunders wrought from national inexperience. The Colonies had ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781. By the end of the War for Independence in 1783, it was already apparent that the Articles were inadequate to effectively govern the new nation. The federal government couldn’t defend the Confederation from foreign threats, quell internal rebellions, or even facilitate effective trade between the states. By 1785, some state leaders were calling for reform and after a first attempt in 1786, fifty-five delegates from twelve of the thirteen states gathered in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, to discuss reform. They were authorized by Congress only to revise the Articles, but under the advice of the president of the Convention, George Washington, they disposed of the Articles altogether and chose to create a new constitution.

They knew the government needed to be stronger, but how strong should it be? What if, by empowering the state, they enabled a tyrantmaking the cure to the ills of the Articles worse than the disease? This was the primary question. After over three months of debate, the document was sent to the Committee of Style, working on the final wording until the morning of September 17, when the document was read aloud one last time before it was signed by delegates representing twelve of the thirteen states.

Benjamin Franklin would remark that over the last three months as the delegates debated, he had observed the half-sun on the back of Washington’s chair and had wondered whether it was rising or setting. "Now," he said. "I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

John Adams, away in Britain on government business at the time of the Convention, called it "the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen." His political foe Thomas Jefferson, also absent from the Convention for government work in France, called it "an assembly of demigods." That’s not to say that the Constitution didn’t have its detractors. Of the original fifty-five delegates, only forty-one remained in Philadelphia until the end of the Convention. Three of those abstained from voting. Two of the abstainers, Virginia’s George Mason and Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry, abstained because the Constitution lacked adequate safeguards against the potential tyranny of an empowered central government. They wanted a bill of rights. Four years later, they would get it.

Two hundred twenty-one years after that signing and nearly two hundred seventeen years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, FIRE is here, within a stone’s throw of such deeds, still working to defend the fundamental principles laid down all those years ago.