I recently read the late Catherine Drinker Bowen’s, “Miracle at Philadelphia,” the story of the 5 months of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that created the Constitution of the United States. The book was published in 1966, but has so much relevance in so many ways to where we are in this country today. The book, which Bowen acknowledged owes much to James Madison’s detailed daily diaries, goes through the intense discussions and arguments that resulted in the Seven Article, 4,450 word Constitution. It took two years for the 13 states to ratify the Constitution and another two years before the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, were passed. The book is fascinating reading. It is not my intent to recreate what Bowen wrote. I would urge everyone to read the book. It is not easy to find, although it ranks number 54 among all books in terms of presence in the most US libraries.
The significance of the book is the detailed descriptions of the back and forth that clearly, in a miraculous fashion, resulted in a Constitution that we have come to believe was created by an all-knowing group of wise men who could do no wrong. They could do wrong, and they disagreed violently at times, in private. The objective though was “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
What comes across in the book, in addition to the ultimate intelligence, civility and seriousness of the attendees, is the continued reference at tense times to the importance of Happiness and Tranquility, as an expected outcome of the proceedings. There were references back to the Declaration of Independence and “the Pursuit of Happiness.” There was the letter to the Federation’s Congress, which had to approve sending the Constitution for ratification by the States with the appeal “That [the Constitution] may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.” This letter was signed by George Washington who opened and closed the convention.
We seem to have moved a long way from those original intents and the process that delivered them. We are an unhappy country. I certainly don’t hear politicians talking about happiness and tranquility as objectives. Nor is there any desire to seek elements of compromise and do what is right for the country. This ranges from Nancy Pelosi’s statement to a freshman congressman that “we always vote as a bloc,” to Mitch McConnell’s ..”the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” It would be useful if every policy maker in the country read this book before making their next decision on what they say to their constituents and what goals they try to achieve in carrying out their responsibilities.
Let me provide some of the highlights from the book.
To get from a gathering of state representatives to a Constitution of the people required bringing together diverse interests of agriculture and mercantilism, small and large states in size and population, the concept of states’ rights with a national government and the issue of slavery. Slavery was the one kicked down the road with the only agreement that the importation of slaves would stop in 1808 and that a slave would account for 3/5 of a person. The convention started with the establishment of a Rules Committee which came back to the body quickly with a mode of conduct and resolution. Importantly, it included a decision that all deliberations would remain within the convention until resolution. It included general rules on civility of conduct–hearing each other out–, and an ability to reconsider matters that had already passed until agreement was ultimately reached with no recording of the Yeas and Nays that might fix one into a binding position. Later in the proceedings, there was the Great Compromise which resulted in the two chambers of Congress–one determined by population and the other by equal representation of each state. There was the clause in Article VI “…but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It was a six-day a week process for those 5 months producing a 23-Article treatise.
A final committee was created after the elements of the Constitution were clear–the Committee of Style. It had the responsibility of translating the treatise into the document that would be presented to the people and the states. Five men, Dr. William Samuel Johnson (chairman), Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison and Rufus King were given that responsibility. None of these men agreed with all the elements in the proposed Constitution, but they were selected because of their command of the language, their no-nonsense approach and their historical perspective. They stayed true to the agreements reached in the convention. With an enormous amount of wordsmithing and simplification, in four days the document was condensed from 23 Articles down to 7. It took into account earlier documents in the history of man including the Magna Carta and the Iroquois Nations’ constitution. At conclusion, the phrase, “We the People…” bothered some of the states’ rights folks, but is said to have ultimately become a rallying cry against the absolutist kings of Europe. And, not all present at the convention agreed with everything in the final document. Benjamin Franklin expressed it well: “ I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve…But I am not sure that I will never approve them…Most men indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error…But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect…In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such.” He subsequently went on to say it astonished him how close the Constitution came to perfection, and later wrote to a friend, “I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.” He was not alone in these sentiments. Some at the convention did not sign, 33-year old Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia, being one. He had actually presented in the first days of the convention many of the major elements that ended up in the final document. Every state, excluding Rhode Island, which did not attend the convention, did have signators. Randolph did go on to indicate that he would not necessarily oppose the Constitution “without doors,” but simply wanted to be free to do his duty as determined by his future judgment. Franklin’s future judgment included many letters to his friends in Europe urging them to form a Union of the countries with a Constitution and governance similar to that created for the United States. As usual, a little ahead of his time.
Well, how does this have relevance to today’s picture? As I stated earlier, I am not even sure Happiness comes up as a topic among our politicians these days. Civility, and compromise are also lacking from the picture. It is not that there wasn’t passion back in the 18th century with strong positions held. But what appears to have been less present –not absent totally–back then, was the personal animosity, the unwillingness to compromise and the disregard for ultimately doing what was right for the country and the people in a timeframe that mattered. We have moved so far away from the process and actions that led to the formation of this country and its success over the last two+ centuries. A good task for all of us would be to understand the steps taken at the beginning that should be the foundation of today’s behavior. This book, “Miracle at Philadelphia,” could provide a perspective for all of us on how we should be acting today. Find it and read it, please.