Happy Constitution Day?

On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention broke up in Philadelphia, following months of hard, tense negotiations. It was tiring work. The stress of trying to record the proceedings of the convention for future generations nearly killed James Madison. But despite the enormous piss-up at the City Tavern, the really hard work had only just begun.

225 years ago, the Constitution was not ‘The Constitution’. It was a proposed model for a new frame of government that had yet to be approved by the Confederation Congress, much less approved by the popular vote of a single state. The process of making the Constitution ‘The Constitution’ would take the best part of a year, and there would be more than a few problems along the way.

In late September, for example, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly wished to call for a ratifying convention before Congress had even sent notification that they approved the report of the Constitutional Convention. Opponents of the Constitution, realizing what was up, decided to bolt for home to deny the Assembly a quorum. It was, after all, the last day of the Assembly’s session, and if they stalled for time they may be able to mobilize a more effective opposition.

Federalists, on the other hand, were furious, and a crowd gathered to find the recalcitrant Assemblymen and force them to attend debate. Eventually, two were found, and dragged kicking and screaming through the streets of Philadelphia, and taken to the State House (ironically, the very same place the Constitutional Convention had itself met). There, the doors were locked shut behind them until a ratifying convention had been safely called.

In the ensuing newspaper debate, one author ominously warned that further violence would follow if anyone attempted to exercise their democratic right to oppose the Constitution. To give one particularly unsubtle example: “I would therefore advise him to choose some other subject for his remarks in future, if he wishes to escape the just resentment of an incensed people, who may perhaps honor him with a coat of TAR and FEATHERS”. Whenever I think of the ratification of the Constitution, that’s what I think of – both Federalists and Antifederalists doing their damnedest to avoid debates.

Once Pennsylvania had ratified the Constitution, a group of Federalists met in the public square of Carlisle to celebrate. Only this time, it was the Antifederalists who were determined to block celebration at all costs. At the march of the militia drum, men poured into the public square and beat the Federalists with barrels and staves. The next day, the Federalists were allowed to have their celebration, but only if followed by an Antifederalist protest, where the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania was hanged in effigy.

These are perhaps the two most violent incidents of the ratification debate. But they were by no means the only battles that occurred. Other writers protested about different forms of intimidation – pressure brought to bear on newspaper editors not to print Antifederalist essays, for example, or postmasters intercepting the post to prevent distribution of Antifederalist materials.

Even at the time the first federal elections were held, not all Americans had been persuaded of the wisdom of the new Constitution. North Carolina held out until late 1789; Rhode Island, ever the obstreperous child, didn’t ratify until mid-1790 – almost two years after the ratification of the ninth state.

Yet today, at educational institutions all across America, there will be a host of events dedicated to celebrating ‘Constitution Day’. In news coverage across the US, today is described as the 225th anniversary of the Constitution. Of the words of the Constitution, maybe. But 225 years ago, the word had not yet become flesh and lived and breathed among us.

As with so much in the American Revolution, this sanitizing of history to remove the conflict of the ratification debate from popular memory troubles me greatly. It troubles me because it ignores the fact that many people took a quite literal beating to ensure the Constitution became law. It troubles me because it ignores the ways in which opponents of the Constitution won quite considerable concessions from its supporters – not least a Bill of Rights.

Most importantly, it troubles me because the ratification debate is in many ways the best celebration of the principles of democratic self-government in the Revolutionary Era. It was messy and violent and fractious and in certain cases probably relied on rigging the rules of the game more than it should have done. But it worked in uniting 13 remarkably dissimilar states and binding them to a central government. All this in an era when it was hard enough to establish stable politics in any one state, let alone across a whole continent.

Clearly, I’m not one to lament a large series of public events inviting closer reflection on the Constitution. However, I can’t help but think labeling September 17th ‘Constitution Day’ imposes a false impression of the Constitution’s creation. The Constitution became law because ‘the people’ voted for it, not because Madison and Hamilton and Wilson and Washington and Franklin et al willed it. 225 years ago, that was all the Constitution was – a document they wished for. It only became more than just words through a much deeper and wider struggle.


About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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2 Responses to Happy Constitution Day?

  1. Pingback: Making It Up As They Went Along | Kenneth Owen

  2. Pingback: Making It Up As They Went Along | The Committee of Observation and Inspection

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