By David V. Wendell
Skyrocketing debts, unfair foreign trade advantages, jobs transferred overseas, unemployment at record highs, unstoppable foreclosures. This is a description of our nation in 1786.
Under a loose confederation of 13 states and a weak central government, the federal lack of power to regulate trade and the financial system led to a revolt by the public in which the unemployed set up camps on the lawn of public buildings and held protest rallies against government officials. The grass-roots political movement culminated in a raid led by Daniel Shays on the U.S. Arsenal at Springfield, Mass. George Washington and other leaders of the first revolution intercepted the mob and violence was averted.
Nevertheless, the “occupy” movement of its time demonstrated a need for change.
In response to Shays’ Rebellion, 55 businessmen, farmers and merchants were chosen by the legislatures of each state (except Rhode Island) to meet at Philadelphia in May of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, which had tenuously held the nation together for less than a decade. George Washington, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin presided over the summit at Independence Hall.
Many controversial problems had to be overcome. Foreign countries refused to trade with the U.S. because treaties would have to be signed with each state. Larger states were afraid that smaller states would have the same voting power in Congress. Taxes could only be distributed to the states (not for operation of a federal entity) and there was no central military command for defense of all states.
Reform was necessary, or the nation — and the principles for which it fought — would fail. To assure its survival, the delegates met with windows closed and guards posted at the doors.
The summer of 1787 was the hottest on record in Philadelphia. With windows sealed, the Founding Fathers endured blazing heat and stifling humidity to form a more perfect union.
The delegates realized the need for a stronger central government, but also wanted to avoid a monarchy such as they had just defeated. It would require a delicate balance in which all sides compromised a little to achieve a common good.
Despite strong differences and fighting among two distinct parties (those that believed in a concentrated federal rule and those who believed in less government), all came together.
A system was devised, as a concession to each other, that the government would be divided into three separate branches; Executive, led by the president, Legislative, led by a Senate and House of Representatives, and a Judicial, headed by the Supreme Court. Each of these branches would serve as a check to make certain that the other never became dominant, a tactic to assure that the federal government would not become a totalitarian dictatorship. To further guarantee this, it was spelled out that any powers not enumerated in the Constitution were reserved for the states.
Still, this left many issues postponed. Slavery would be accepted and no actions taken on it until 1808. Each slave, in the meantime, would count as 3/5 of a person in determining the population of each state, thus boosting the influence of rural states in Congress. Judicial Review (the court’s right to declare a law unconstitutional) had not yet been established, and the way taxes would be raised had yet to be defined.
The largest issue was lack of a Bill of Rights for citizens. So strongly did some delegates believe in such a provision that George Mason, on whose writings Thomas Jefferson had based the Declaration of Independence, refused to sign a constitution without it.
Fortunately, the presiding officers were wise enough to recognize the ultimate compromise: a living document that, through consent of three-fourths of the states, would allow the Constitution to be expanded with amendments. The first 10, known as the Bill of Rights, was added in 1791. In exchange, the Federalists were granted stronger powers to the Executive. With this appeasement, and the willingness to compromise, 39 delegates signed the Constitution, after more than three months in the confined oppressive heat, on Sept. 17, 1787.
Today, 225 years later, as our nation’s future is being determined, let us hope that our elected officials will look back upon the Founding Fathers and, in the heat of this drought, see the wisdom of the framers of the U.S. Constitution and reach the compromises necessary — as they did — to assure their sacrifices were not in vain.
Sometimes, if we know history, we can be blessed to repeat it.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org