We the People of the United States, in Order 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
On September 17, 1787, after months of discussions, arguments, and compromises, the United States Constitution was signed by members of the Constitutional Convention and sent off the Confederation Congress for its approval and then to the 13 states for ratification. It was a complete overhaul of the federal government that had been organized by the Articles of Confederation up until that point. The President of the Constitutional Convention was the greatest American of that time (and possibly still today), General George Washington. Washington had been hoping to retire to Mount Vernon after the war had ended, but he knew the nation he helped to found was in need, and that only he could provide the unifying factor and give legitimacy to the proceedings.
When it was completed, the Constitution set up the three branches of government and their duties, the roles between the various states and those states and the new federal government… which still only had limited powers, the ratification process, and for the addition of amendments. In 226-years, the Constitution has only been amended 27-times.
The Constitution is far from perfect, even back when it was signed and ratified. Though they had taken parts of it from various other international laws, the type of government it was setting up was unheard of. It was a way to unite the various states into a federal union with a limited federal government to oversee various things and give the states one unified voice. But for those that signed, their country was still the state they resided in. Their nation came in second. And even in those early days, no one was sure what the role of the federal government would be.
Two men that were absent from the constitutional proceedings were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were both serving as ministers overseas in Great Britain and France, respectively. Since the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were held in secret, they were not aware of the final outcome until many months later. In a letter to John Adams on November 13, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
How do you like our new constitution? I confess there are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an assembly has proposed. The house of federal representatives will not be adequate to the management of affairs either foreign or federal. Their President seems a bad edition of a Polish king. He may be reelected from 4. years to 4. years for life. […] I wish that at the end of the 4. years they had made him for ever ineligible a second time.
John Adams would reply in a letter dating December 6, 1787.
You are afraid of the one — I, of the few. We agree that the many should have a full fair and perfect Representation. — You are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy. I would therefore have given more Power to the President and less to the Senate. […] Faction and Distraction are the sure and certain Consequence of giving to a Senate a vote in the distribution of offices. […] Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror.
Jefferson had every reason to be concerned about the presidency and the establishment of a monarchy. That’s all anyone had known. Luckily for our young republic, George Washington was selected to be our first President under this new government. And after serving 2-terms (8-years), he set one of the most important precedents. He stepped aside. It was a precedent adopted by the rest of the “founding Presidents” and was established as the next generation came to be, and it would remain so until President Franklin Roosevelt won a 3rd and 4th term and thus the passage of the 22nd Amendment limiting a person to be President for 2-terms (or 10-years total) afterwards. With certain individuals of the time that saw larger pictures of grandeur (i.e. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr), those first years and those precedents could have easily been in jeopardy.
As for Adams, we can see what he had partially predicted. We see certain posts that require Senate confirmation being left vacant because one party objects. We tend to elect those that serve in Congress and the President with a minority of voters. Almost half of the voters feel disenfranchised and thus do not participate. This leaves those to be elected by a small group of people, and those elected are supported by an even small group of people… all of whom have high ambitions for themselves and what they represent.
It has withstood the test of time including the greatest threat of all… the issue of slavery and states’ rights, the very thing that threatened to tear the entire nation apart. In the end, the Constitution would stand tall. We still interpret its meanings today and how they apply to our modern times. These range from electronic surveillance, what Congress can and cannot do, the war powers, Senate confirmation of Cabinet nominees, judicial review, the separation of powers, etc. We must continue to adapt, but we must also continue to secure and uphold the founding principles we were founded on. Too many times, we have turned away and allowed the federal government to overstep its boundaries by violating the limited power the Constitution created. And too often do we allow the federal government to trample on our rights as citizens defined in the Bill of Rights without going through the proper procedures to amend the Constitution.
The Constitution is not irrelevant today. It has served us well for 226 years… even despite its flaws. We must educate ourselves on this document and what it entails. “We the People of the United States” are its guardian and protector. We are the ones that determine the role in plays in today’s world. Let us continue the tradition that has been handed down to us.