Commemorating Constitution Day

By Nancy Spannaus

Sept. 17, 2022—Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, a Federally mandated occasion to commemorate the signing of the document which established our form of government. In our current period of political turmoil, we would do well to study both the document and its history, and rededicate ourselves to its noble purposes, laid out in the Preamble:

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.

Over this blog’s lifetime, I have devoted several posts to the Constitution,[1] stressing its positive potential for creating that “more perfect Union.” In this post, I want to concentrate on September 17, 1787 itself.

Commemorating Constitution Day
The Signing of the Constitution, an oil by Thomas Rossiter. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

It was on that day that 39 of the original 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention affixed their signatures to the document. They represented 11 states; Rhode Island had not sent a delegation, and the absence of a New York quorum meant that Alexander Hamilton had to sign as an individual. Two days later the full document appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet and newspapers throughout the states soon followed, making the document available for the intense debate on ratification which followed for the next many months. Scholars report that the Constitution was reprinted in approximately 100 papers around the country.

Along with the Constitution’s text was another document, one which is often neglected. This was a letter signed by George Washington, who chaired the Constitutional Convention. The letter had been produced by the Committee on Style,[2] which was comprised of Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, James Madison, and Rufus King; the assembled delegates voted to approve it paragraph by paragraph on Sept. 17.

Washington’s letter of transmittal to the U.S. Congress was reprinted with the Constitution’s text. The impact of this endorsement by the former Commander-in-Chief undoubtedly had great impact on its reception.[3]

Washington’s Letter

In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette in February of 1788 (when the Constitution was still not ratified by the requisite nine states), Washington described the production of the document “little short of a miracle.” The sense of the difficulty of the debate the delegates engaged in over the previous few months comes through in his cover letter.

 

Commemorating Constitution Day
The NYC parade celebrating the 9th state ratifying the U.S. Constitution

More importantly, Washington marshals arguments for the necessity of ratification, in that he believes it will “promote the lasting Welfare of that Country so dear to us all and secure her Freedom and Happiness.”

As a recently published book I’m reading, Fears of a Setting Sun,[4] elaborates, Washington’s optimism was to fade over time, especially as the factional battles between the emerging political parties threatened to tear the country apart. Yet, here we are, 235 years later, with our Constitution still alive, if not well. As we face today’s rancor, we might well find it useful, if not inspiring, to revisit Washington’s recommendation of Sept. 17, 1787. So here it is:[5]

[Philadelphia, 17 September 1787]

We have now the Honor to submit to the Consideration of the United States in Congress assembled that Constitution which has appeared to us the most advisable.

The Friends of our Country have long seen and desired that the Power of making War Peace and Treaties, that of levying Money & regulating Commerce and the correspondent executive and judicial Authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general Government of the Union. But the Impropriety of delegating such extensive Trust to one Body of Men is evident—Hence results the Necessity of a different Organization.

It is obviously impracticable in the fœderal Government of these States to secure all Rights of independent Sovereignty to each and yet provide for the Interest and Safety of all—Individuals entering into Society must give up a Share of Liberty to preserve the Rest. The Magnitude of the Sacrifice must depend as well on Situations and Circumstances as on the Object to be obtained. It is at all Times difficult to draw with Precision the Lines between those Rights which must be surrendered and those which may be reserved. And on the present Occasion this Difficulty was encreased by a Difference among the several States as to their Situation Extent Habits and particular Interests.

In all our Deliberations on this Subject we kept steadily in our View that which appears to us the greatest Interest of every true American, the Consolidation of our Union in which is involved our Prosperity, Felicity, Safety, perhaps our national Existence. This important Consideration seriously and deeply impressed on our Minds led each State in the Convention to be less rigid on Points of inferior Magnitude than might have been otherwise expected. And thus the Constitution which we now present is the Result of a Spirit of Amity and of that mutual Deference & Concession which the Peculiarity of our political Situation rendered indispensable.

That it will meet the full and entire Approbation of every State is not perhaps to be expected. But each will doubtless consider that had her Interests been alone consulted the Consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others. That it is liable to as few Exceptions as could reasonably have been expected we hope and believe That it may promote the lasting Welfare of that Country so dear to us all and secure her Freedom and Happiness is our most ardent wish.

(function() { window.mc4wp = window.mc4wp || { listeners: [], forms: { on: function(evt, cb) { window.mc4wp.listeners.push( { event : evt, callback: cb } ); } } } })();

[1] See Our Constitutional Commitment to Economic Progress, Frederick Douglass on the U.S. Constitution, and many others.

[2] This committee, which had been chosen by the entire Convention, composed the final draft of the document.

[3] Extensive coverage and analysis of this document and its significance can be found on Adam Levinson’s invaluable blog statutesandstories.com

[4] Rasmussen, Dennis, Fears of a Setting Sun, The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, Princeton University Press, 2021.

[5] I have slightly edited the document for spelling and punctuation.