Today is Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. If July 4, 1776, is the nation’s birthday, this is its 235th wedding anniversary.
The nuptials occurred after a long engagement, or rather, friendship. The Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1777. Once ratified by the individual states in 1781, it named the new country the United States of America. It defined a “league of friendship” among the 13 independent states. Under the articles, the sovereign states retained “every Power … which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States.”
But as with many friendships, it could not last because the parties were too independent and self-centered. Squabbles broke out over power, money, trade, and dreams of the future. The states were in dire need of marriage counselors.
Fearing a breakup, George Washington, James Madison, and others called a Constitutional Convention in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. Within a month, they decided to completely revise the government. As in 1776, it was another long, hot summer of debate and compromise.
They shuttered Independence Hall for secrecy and emerged only when the vows were complete. Someone asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government they had decided on, a republic or a monarchy. Franklin reportedly answered: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
And how do you keep it? As with any long-lasting marriage, the secret is in each party sharing responsibilities, making compromises, and living up to their promises. Shared responsibilities? The legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Living up to promises? Checks and balances, and enumerated rights and responsibilities. Compromises? Equal representation in the Senate, and representation by population in the House of Representatives. But most important, the Bill of Rights.
It was a new idea, and nothing new is perfect. So the Constitution provided for amendments to spell out personal rights and to adapt to changing times. But like a divorce, the process of changing the rules is not an easy one. It is designed to make all the parties think things through first.
The first 10 Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were themselves a compromise between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. But perhaps the one that holds it all together is the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
And that’s what has made this marriage last.