Archiving Early America: a Web site devoted to the historical documents of the 18th century.
The Formation of a National Government: Chapter 3 in The American Revolution - an HTML project.
The Constitution continues to serve as the foundation of our government and our society. Every group, from the National Rifle Association to the American Association of Retired People, have claimed the Constitution as the source of their rights and interests. And although over 11,000 changes to the original document have been proposed, only 28 amendments have ever been ratified.
During the week we mark our nation's birth, it is important to examine the motivations that drove the Continental Congress. What were the pressing issues of the day that caused the framers of the Constitution to choose the amendments they did? What were their long range intentions?
How has a document drafted two centuries ago survived essentially unchanged? Have the principles codified in the original Constitution lasted? Gerard Gawalt, early American history expert with the Library of Congress since 1969, answered your questions about the way the Constitution took shape and how the document changed the United States and the rest of the world.
A question Scott Hume of Tempe, Arizona:
While some have advocated changing the Constitution to more accurately reflect the myriad of current realities and worldviews in this country, others suggest that the documents intrinsic vagueness is the key element in its continued 'success.' Your comments, sir.
Gerard Gawalt responds:
The Constitution is subject to constant change through judicial interpretation, legislation, and simply the will to use various parts of the Constitution. The founding fathers made it extremely difficult to amend the Constitution in fact to avoid the willow tree form of government. The remarkable aspect of the United States Constitution is that the fundamental principles of the document have never been challenged in recent years. Certainly the Civil War was a direct challenge to the federal Constitution, and its nature was preserved by military power (which was ironically what the founding fathers feared the most).
A question from Edward Sternberg of Milwaukee, WI:
One of the more frequently revisited issues of constitutional law, as I--a biologist--see it, is the question of strict construction. It seems to me that Jefferson's efforts to justify the Louisiana Purchase must have been instructive on this issue. I know little about the topic--please share with me your views.
Gerard Gawalt responds:
Although Jefferson did not help write the Constitution, he certainly was concerned with its interpretation. The Louisiana Purchase was a concern to Jefferson. So much so, that he even drafted an amendment to the Constitution to allow for the addition of new territory by treaty and simultaneously to create an Indian reservation of much of the land west of the Mississippi. Jefferson was persuaded by Madison, Monroe, Fallatin, and other national leaders that the broad interpretation of the Constitution that he so opposed when the Federalists were in power was indeed a valid interpretation when the right party was in power. This action by Jefferson virtually assured the acceptance of the broad interpretation of the Constitution. Strict interpretationists have been on the defensive ever since Jefferson's action.
A question from Bill Rand of Rochester, MN:
To me one of the most complicated aspects of the Constitution is whether or not we should abide by the original Framer's Intent. I feel that living in strict standards according to what Thomas Jefferson and his original compatriots meant when they wrote the Constitution, is probably wrong. After all times have changed, but then again adapting the Constitution constantly to the world around us would destroy any meaning inherent in this noble document. Some sort of middle ground must be reached, but is this possible?
Gerard Gawalt responds:
We have operated on a middle ground of interpreting the Constitution for most of the last 200 years (with the notable exception of the Civil War). Jefferson thought that a Republican form of government was worth a revolution every 20 years. Fortunately, that has not been necessary. Despite Jefferson's fear of judicial interpretation and the broad interpretation based on the general welfare clause, these have proven to be the keys to the Constitution's longevity and success. Madison and John Jay (more than Hamilton) realized that the balance of powers within the three divisions of the government were critical to providing forums for a large and diverse nation. It has proven to be very difficult for any national section or special interest, be it ethnic or economic, to control all the branches of government. Thus there has been room for the various philosophies and the conflicting parties to play out their roles in the public republican forum.
A question from Michelle Miller of Shrewsbury, PA:
Madison is often called the Father of the Constitution. What was his role? What was his background and how did it affect the document?
Gerard Gawalt responds:
James Madison was the driving force behind the national movement to call a constitutional convention. He was responsible for drafting the Virginia plan of government and preparing a guide for the new form of government. Although he spoke often and eloquently in the convention, his most important role was behind the scenes where he motivated and cajoled delegates into compromising and staying at their task until a product was finished. He then took the lead in securing the adoption of the Constitution by state assemblies called specifically for that purpose. Madison, like most the southern founders of the nation, was a wealthy and large land and slave owner. His wealth and the labor of his slaves allowed him the time and freedom to master the intricacies of political philosophy and practical politics that enabled him to be the Father of the Constitution. He was one of the coterie of Virginians, that the world will probably never see the like of again.
A question from Mike Hadley of Richmond, VA:
Other countries alter or scrap their constitutions all the time, but the U.S. has essentially left ours in tact. What is it about our Constitution that makes it so enduring?
Gerard Gawalt responds:
The success of the Constitution has depended on the ability of Congress and the federal courts to informally effect constitutional amendments (interpretations) by the general welfare clause and judicial interpretation. On the other hand it has been extremely difficult to formally amend the Constitution (only 27 out of 10000 attempts). The result has been a remarkably flexible but stable document.
A question from Cindy Kinch of Boston, MA:
What impact did Constitution have on political philosophy and other intellectual movements at the time (i.e. its affect on the French Revolution)?
Gerard Gawalt responds:
The Constitution gave a great impetus to the republican politicial philosophy. Not only the French, but the Swiss, Polish, Turkish and several other European countries based new forms of government in the nineteenth century on the American Constitution. The American Constitution also served as a model for the emerging South American countries in the nineteenth century. Some historians say that the British Commonwealth of Nations and ultimately the United Nations were based on the federal form of government. Certainly the United States Constitution and the success of the United States government proved that a republican form of government could succeed in governing a large and diverse people.
Charles H. France of Phoenix, Arizona
The Constitution gives all the world something to have hope for. This is the reason everybody wants to come here. I don't want any changes made to it. This encludes the First and the Second amendment.
Glen Self of Charlottesville, VA
The strength of the Constitution is in it's minimalist approach to defining government. It set the direction and tone without casting minutia in stone.
A prime example is the concept of cruel and unusual punishment. At the time of, or shortly prior to, the framing of the constitution, the use of torture to punish or to gain a confession was common. Torture iincluded, the rack, whips of chain, being drawn and quartered, keel hauling, branding, blinding etc. To the framers these were cruel and unusual.
Although I am sure they would stand agast at the idea that not having cable tv or movies is considered cruel they wrote a document that does allow for different interpretations as society changes. It is up to us as citizens to ensure that mores of today are not allowed to overly change the basic intent of the Constitution.
Prohibition was an excellent example of an ill considered amendment to the Constitution. Like a house built on a firm foundation, to remain strong we should only tinker with the foundation when absolutely necessary.
Linda Springrose of St. Louis, MO
I have thought a lot about the U.S. Constitution, and I have wondered why it is that other countries draft new Consti- tutions with some regularity while we have had ours for over 200 years with little change. I think the concepts in it are broad enough to have lasted throughout all these years, and it would be extremely difficult to draft a new Constitution.
I believe that the basic rights of men protected in the Constitution are universal, but I do believe that the forefathers of our country and drafters of the Constitution are probably rolling over in their collective graves knowing what is being perpetrated in the name of Constitution. That is, the miltia (covered by the Constitution) arrested in Arizona today for intention to blow up government build- ings is definitely at cross purposes with what Thomas Jefferson and George Washington most likely had in mind.
I believe the Constitution has had a very great impact on the rest of the world, and I believe that it has been used as the model for the drafting of many other constitutions. It incorporated many of the philosphical ideas of the day (e.g., Rousseau) that are still seriously studied and referred to today as basic rights of men (and, today, women). I think that making a document that would last throughout the ages and would have influence almost the world over was one of the things the founding fathers had in mind, and they certainly did a bang-up job!
John Bolton of NY, NY
The Constitution is essential; especially the Bill of Rights. It has proven itself to be sturdy and adaptable over the years. Any attempt to trivialize or amend it should be viewed with great trepidation and suspicion.
Bill Housley of Salt Lake City, UT
First some background on me... I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as "Mormons". It is our belief that the original Church of Jesus Christ left the Earth with the death of the Apostles and awaited a time when religious freedom would allow it's restoration.
Among other things, we believe that Columbus was inspired of God to sail the Ocean and locate the new world. Further that the newly independant Colonies in 1776 were aided by God in their war to shake off the tyrany of British rule.
We further believe that the Founding Fathers of our Nation's Constitution were rightious, God fearing men who were inspired of God in the writting of the Constitution. That it was for the express purpose of the restoration of God's work on Earth that this Nation has prospered under this Government.
OK...What were the motivations of the Men who drafted the Constitution? Well, they desired to build a system where the governing power filtered up from the peaple, that those who served in Government were to be just that, servants.
It has lasted as long as it has because God has prospered it for the purpose of perpetuating His work and preparing the world for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The Constitution and this nation have served as role models for other nations, the know that government by the peaple can work and be prosperous. Also, certain elements of the way demacracy is implented therein have been duplicated in other nations to give them a template for building there own forms of democracy and spread the freedom and prosparity of democracy and free enterprise around the world.
Daniel Pushor of Nashua, NH
History is replete with examples of despots bent on world domination, which is the goal of the United Nations. The U.S. Constitution is the only protection we have from the GLOBALISTS!
John Holliday of Santa Rosa, CA
Basically, they wanted to get away from the ravages of a non- redeemable paper currency. If you read George Washington's letters, you'll see that the economy was faltering and he had no idea what to do. When the convention was convened, one of the major issues was to stop the paper money inflation and do whatever was necessary to keep it from coming back.
They succeeded with Article 1, Section 10 which keeps a State from making any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts. If a State is thus prohibited, the only way to ensure that commerce would continue, was for the States to be the protectors of the money. If you want further proof, read the re-release of "A Caveat Against Injustice", originally by Roger Sherman but with added comments by author F. Tupper Saussy, Spencer Judd Publishers, 1982.
Strangely enough, we are facing the same problem today. Hmmm! Wonder what to do.
C. Fred Mullins of Springfield, OH
The constituton is still "vital" today and, as you have mentioned in your homepage article, cited by nearly everyone to justify their exotic activities. In this smokescreen, nearly a smog, of political activity, perhaps the constitution lacks a cogent defense as a direction giving document. The Supreme Court is perhaps not nearly active enough in settling the squabbles over what the founders' words imply for today's world situations. It is at least my impression that in many areas that matter to the most generalized individual, personal freedoms have been seriously eroded in favor of the establishment since the late 1960's.
I feel that this is due in large measure to the federally un-funded collapse of the educational system in defense of that establishment. The resultant relatively uneducated populace is much less trouble than my nearly one-minded peers were (to the larger business/political interests) but are now a major burden in their massive unproductivity and general inability to contribute constructively. Still, this state of affairs challenges those that remain to somehow incorporate and make productive economic use of this massive pool of de-classe resource. Not necessarily a constitutional issue in and of itself, but nevertheless rife with constitutional issues in the long run. Certainly a lively opportunity for present day social scientists and technologists hand-in-hand with their legal team(s).
Charles J. Iseman of Columbia, Maryland
The Constitution has proven to be remarkably successful in fashioning a sturdy guidepost for the evolution of our democratic form of government. The ingenious provision for a system of checks and balances among the branches of the federal government and between the federal and state governments has served to protect and gradually to expand the overall quantity and quality of individual liberty. The Constitution allows for amendments, but only through a process that ensures that amendments truly reflect a broad consensus of public opinion that endures over a respectable period of time. It is highly unlikely that any attempt to rewrite the Constitution afresh would assure the protection of individual freedoms as well as the blessed original. The chances of damaging these liberties and of slanting provisions to favor the special interests of those with greater political power, to the detriment of those less powerful, is simply too great to warrant the risk of undertaking such an attempt.
David Swindle of McKinney Texas
I believe that we should for the most part leave the constitution alone. I realize that there are issues we must look at, but we MUST make it a difficult process to change. I also have problems with the way our Federal Goverment changes the interpertation of sections of the constitution when it suits them. Our goverment seems to be determine to lay waste to 200 years of freedom, by supressing our basic freedoms. Their "Drug War" is a good example. This waste of time effort and people is turning our nation into a nation of criminals, and those of us who could care less about using drugs, pay the price, all in the name of the war on drugs. We must stop the goverment from further errosion of our freedoms. It seems were are determine to relearn the lessions our forefathers learned. I hope the citizens in this country wake up!!!
Monte Phillips of San Leon, TX
I'll leave the motivations of the framers as well as the historical impact of the Constitution, to the historians. What concerns me is the future of the thing. The Constitution's value lies in its universal understanding and application. Both must exist for it to work.
Today probably less than one in four americans are capable of reading the document, far fewer have done so and even fewer are capable of understanding the ideas incorporated within it. One common factor among americans could be found a mere forty or fifty years ago literacy or the desire to become literate. If the illiteracy and ignorance rate continues at current levels the Constitution cannot be sustained.
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