By Jeff Olson
Two hundred thirty three years ago this week, May 25, 1787; the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia. At the outset, the states were bitterly divided. The Continental dollar was extremely inflated and the economy was very depressed. The instability was so severe that England and Spain were postured to pick up the pieces of the colonies when things fell apart. Holding a convention under such circumstances was a challenge, to say the least. With the convention’s purpose evolving into the drafting a new constitution rather than just revising the Articles of Confederation, many delegates were not expecting a four-month commitment. Consequently, this extended investment of time resulted in shortages of money for many delegates since this took them away from their livelihoods. Even James Madison was living on borrowed funds after less than a month into the convention.
The delegates came to understand that their ultimate purpose was to seek a general agreement on what form of government the Constitution should provide; one that allows the people to govern themselves, but also prevents democratic majorities from endangering the freedom of minorities. Tensions became high from time to time, especially on the issues of what should be the authority and scope of the new national government and how to provide a more equal political playing field for both large and small states. The process involved patient, methodical and often intense deliberation which was more than simply the forcing of issues to finality through compromise. So heated did the debates get that at one point the convention came very close to ending after a short time and with little progress – that is until its elder statesman, Benjamin Franklin, gave some much-needed timeless words of wisdom. In part, this is what he said: I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in 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, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build 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: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. From this point forward, the convention made steady progress.
The genius of the Constitutional Convention included an enormous treasure of knowledge, experience, and wisdom – all taking into account man’s vain and unsuccessful attempts at self-government through the ages. The failed democracies of the Greek city-states and the decline of the great Roman republic were among the lessons of history which informed the convention. The delegates also knew that the social/civil institutions of the American colonies, developed over the previous 180 years, would serve as relevant references, proven precedents, and reliable supports from which to construct a national constitution particular to the American culture. These intermediate institutions would need to be preserved and remain empowered so that their inherent and foundational role in sustaining the American polity could continue.
Trying to achieve the proper balance between the claims of freedom and the claims of authority through a national government was a delicate, tedious and arduous process, but it was undergirded with a realistic and truthful understanding of the human condition, rooted in the doctrine of original sin. Concepts such as three branches of government, checks and balances, federalism and the primacy of individual freedom, responsibility and accountability are rooted in biblical principles and remain fundamental safeguards against tyranny. These underlying precepts are what made the convention itself the first of its kind in the world and what has made the Constitution so unique and enduring.
As James Madison stated, “The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”