How did we get a Constitution?

This blog is part of a series celebrating Constitution Week (September 17 through 23). It's brought to you by Jon M., Career Support Librarian in the Community Engagement Office.

The United States Constitution—it seems so fundamental a part of this country. We hear about it. We honor it. We quote it, or at least quote our favorite parts. We know it’s there. It’s something Americans immediately think about when asked how we are a free people in a free country.

How did we even get one? There is a version of history that assumes it was just a few nice committee meetings with representatives from the thirteen colonies that decided to break from Great Britain, consensus was built, all the needed compromises were just a matter of splitting the middle ground, and we ended up with a document consisting of a series governing rules. The great minds all came to one agreement. Everything was fine and dandy and worked perfectly. 

Of course, such a teaching of history would ignore the fact that there was an earlier set of rules to govern this fledgling nation still fighting against an England that would rather keep control. That earlier set of rules was The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. This was our ruling framework from 1777 until 1789.

The Articles of Confederation had some political flaws that came to cause friction during the Revolutionary War and subsequent periods. Among them were the ability to print money, which was something each state did separately. This led to separate debts and separate opinions about how they should be paid off. Of course, that could be solved politically via legislative processes. But when there are no set rules for when that political body should meet, it’s not easy to conduct business of that sort.

At the time, it was important that our nation forge ties with foreign governments, especially with France and Spain. To do so, we needed to prove our commitment to nationhood and show we had long-term, mutual goals that would benefit other countries, especially in regard to trade. Born from that commitment was the Model Treaty (a template for commercial treaties, which made it easier to fund a war), which stood alongside the Declaration of Independence and The Articles of Confederation.

The Articles made the name of this new country “The United States of America,” which was a good start. Next up? The Articles gave each state sovereignty (for the most part), worked out how the  Congress of the Confederation should work, went over war powers and military ranks, listed rules to govern when Congress wasn't in session, said we'll pay our debts, and that all will only be changed if every State agreed.

The Articles worked well enough, but some wanted a more perfect Union rather than a pretty good one. So a select group of men were given the task to change The Articles for the better by suggesting some edits and reporting back to Congress with a series of proposals to make things work smoother. And that’s exactly what they didn’t do. They went right to crossing out the “perpetual” portion, scrapped the guts out, and started over. So they wrote what was then and still is (with some additional edits) The Constitution of the United States of America. They didn’t even keep the part about all the States having to agree to change the perpetual rules! Nine of thirteen isn’t all, but was successfully argued to be enough to start over with a new set of rules.

The process was long. Federalists and Anti-Federalists engaged in public relations battles to have either a strong central government or a weaker one. How was a Congress to be made? Democracy by population or by each State being represented equally? And who counts as a person? How to choose a President? What about courts and post offices? What about all that debt? Whether one believes the Framers were divinely-inspired or, depending on personal opinion, somewhat flawed, the fact remains that the result of their efforts was remarkable and long-lasting and changed the world.

Additional reading:

The Framers' Coup

Fault Lines in the Constitution

The U.S. Constitution