by Henry Lane Hull
Today is Constitution and Citizenship Day, commemorating the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. That event culminated the Constitutional Convention’s work that brought forth the basic law of the New Republic. The Confederation had proven to be an unworkable form of government, which resulted in 12 of the 13 original states meeting to draft the new document that pulled together the at-times-conflicting aspirations of each state, entities that a dozen years earlier had been colonies of the British Crown.
The nature of representation had been one of the most contentious issues during the debates at the Convention. Two plans emerged. In the Virginia Plan, population was to be the determining factor in setting up the legislative branch of the new government. The conflicting proposal, known as the New Jersey Plan, called for equal representation for each state.
The coming together of the two disparate concepts resulted in the system that has survived to this day, with the House of Representatives apportionment being based on the populations of the various states, and the Senate having two members designated for each state. The new document called for a national census every 10 years, to be followed by re-apportionment for the House of Representatives based on population changes since the previous census.
In 1940, Congress established “I Am an American Day,” which in 1952 was renamed “Constitution Day,” and set for commemoration annually on September 17. In 2004, the day again was renamed, this time as “Constitution and Citizenship Day.” In 1986, Chief Justice Warren Burger retired from the Supreme Court to become chairman of the Bicentennial Commission established by Congress to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution. Ironically, the date of September 17 was also his own birthday.
William E. Gladstone, who was four times the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Great Britain, referred to our basic law in 1878 when he said that “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Whereas in Britain, the basic laws consist of a compendium of royal decrees, parliamentary statutes, precedents and procedures, in America we have one document, as amended and interpreted over the past two centuries, that sets in place the fundamental law of the land.
The Constitution came forth from the Convention in Philadelphia with the system of checks and balances that would prevent any one branch of government from overpowering the other two or the people themselves. The founders decided to set up a democratic republic, but still a republic, not a democracy, which they thought would guarantee and safeguard the rights of minorities as well as majorities.
The two figures most responsible for the Constitution coming out of the convention were both natives of the Northern Neck. George Washington chaired the assembly, presiding as the figure with the greatest national stature—having led the new nation to victory in the War for Independence—thus being respected by all parties. The nuts and bolts of constructing the document fell upon James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution because of his role in pulling all of the factions together.
Once written, the document was turned over to the states with ratification to take effect when nine of the 13 states had approved it. This process happened quickly, and in less than two years, the first elections for the new government were held with George Washington being elected president. He took office in New York on April 30, 1789. The Bill of Rights consisting of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution swiftly followed, and the government as we have known it ever since was in place, to be amended further over the years in accordance with the provisions it had set forth.
Happy Constitution and Citizenship Day!