On September 17, 1787, George Washington took up a quill and signed the Constitution of the United States of America. He was the first of thirty-three convention delegates to endorse the document that day.
Most Americans probably don’t realize that this Wednesday is the anniversary of that important event. Chances are they do not realize how close we came, the summer of 1787, to dissolving into small factions and losing our identity as the United States of America.
I certainly wouldn’t have been aware, except I read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s book, Miracle of Philadelphia over the summer. Our constitution does indeed qualify as a miracle of creativity, wisdom, compromise, and forward thinking–all wrapped up into one.
The young delegates (average age, 43) had begun their deliberations at the end of May. As the summer heated up (many days were oppressively hot), so did the discussions. Their task seemed impossible: create a strong national government that could support and stabilize the states, yet limit that government in order to honor states’ rights.
For almost four exhausting, uncomfortable months the men debated issue after issue, including: 1) slavery, 2) representation in the legislature, 3) whether the executive branch should be a committee or one man, and 4) whether a bill of rights should be included.
It was the dispute over representation that really caused tempers to flare. Some delegates were concerned that large states would lord it over small states in a legislature of equal representation. Other delegates thought proportional representation based on population was the fairest method.
The two opposing sides hurled arguments back and forth with no compromise in sight. According to Georgia delegate, William Few, “It was an awful and critical moment. If the Convention had then adjourned, the dissolution of the union of the states seemed inevitable.”
What kept them from adjourning? Perhaps it was the strong appeal of an elder statesman in attendance, encouraging the delegates to press on–with God’s help. Following is an excerpt. (Note the twelve phrases and references borrowed from Scripture):
In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented, how has it happened that we have not once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings?
In the beginning of the contest with Britain when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers for the Divine Protection. Our prayers were heard and were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor…
…And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived a long time; and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see that God governs the affairs of men.
And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
We have been assured in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel…and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages (from The Papers of James Madison, 1840).
Those words came from a delegate known for his wisdom and political savvy, one of the most highly respected men in America: Benjamin Franklin.
Another delegate, Mr. Randolph of Virginia, proposed that “thenceforward prayers be used in ye convention every morning” (according to James Madison’s notes).
The Great Debate continued, arguments still broke out, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the crisis was alarming and he “almost despaired.” But the delegates did indeed press on. On July 16, the final compromise was voted upon and passed. The Senate would have two members from each state; the House of Representatives would be based on population, one member for every 40,000 residents.
Slowly but surely, over four months of grueling deliberation, these young visionaries hammered out a new form of government comprised of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. They strove for careful balance of power between those three branches, as well as between the federal government and the states.
The Constitution of the United States of America is the oldest written constitution in the world. It has stood the test of time, as a result of the collective genius of the delegates. They persevered to create a flexible document that could adapt to change as the decades passed.
And undoubtedly Benjamin Franklin has been proven right:
Without [God’s] concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel…and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages.
On the contrary, with God’s aid providing that collective genius, those resolute patriots created the foundation for the greatest nation on earth.
(For those interested in the scriptures Mr. Franklin alluded to in his speech, they include: Job 12:25; James 1:17; James 1:5; Luke 12:6; Psalm 75:7; Daniel 4:17; Psalm 127:1; Genesis 11:1-9; Deuteronomy 28:37; 1 Kings 9:7; 2 Chronicles 7:20; Psalm 44:14).
Art credit: wwwlwikipedia.com. Sources: The Founders’ Bible, Shiloh Road Publishers, 2012; Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, Little, Brown and Company, 1986; The Story of America, Reader’s Digest Association, 1975).
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