On this day in 1787, at the conclusion of a long hot summer spent in secret and exhaustive debate at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the final draft of the Constitution was read aloud, and 39 of the original 55 delegates signed the document. Although the document had yet to be ratified by the states, would later be amended, and remains open to amendment today, the essential design of our republic was completed 225 years ago.
Can one overstate the significance of this achievement? One expert on the Founding, Professor Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University, points to what great thinkers and statesmen have said about the Framers and their work:
Thomas Jefferson characterized the 55 men who showed up in Philadelphia as “demi-gods,” who created a Constitution that would last into remote futurity. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the work of the American Founders: never before in the history of the world had the leaders of a country declared the existing government to be bankrupt, and the people, after debate, calmly elected delegates who proposed a solution, which, in turn, was debated up and down the country for nearly a year, and not a drop of blood was spilled. Madison, in Federalist 37, indicates the uniqueness of the Founding: never before had there been a democratic founding; all previous foundings had been the work of a single founder like Romulus. And Hamilton, in Federalist 1, suggested that this was a unique event in the history of the world; finally government was going to be established by reflection and choice rather than force and fraud.
Teaching the process that produced the Constitution can be challenging, however. To help students and teachers of the Founding, Professor Lloyd has packed the fruit of his long study of the Constitutional Convention into an interactive website. Sponsored by the Ashbrook Center, the website will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Convention. You’ll find:
For your visually inclined students, you’ll find various artistic representations of the Convention and an Interactive Map of Historic Philadelphia in the Late 18th Century, which, along with an account of the Entertainment of George Washington at City Tavern in Philadelphia, will give students an idea of what it meant to be one of the delegates assuming digs in Philadelphia during that long steamy summer.
The site offers a rich resource to those studying individual Framers, investigating particular decisions made at the Convention, or assessing the overall challenge the Founders met.
This fall, Professor Melanie Marlowe of the Department of Political Science at Miami University, teaches The American Founding for Ashbrook’s Online Graduate Courses in American History and Government. We asked Marlowe how she views the work of the Framers, and how she teaches it.
Do you see the Constitution as the logical outcome of a deliberative process that sought a practical framework for American ideals? Or do you see it as a fortuitous outcome?
Both! The Framers came to the Convention prepared for their task and committed to its success. But they were granted an unusual pause in time to do their work.
Before the Constitution, Americans had the state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation, preliminary but ultimately insufficient tools to accomplish the ends of government — protecting the natural rights of the people. The first constitutions were written just as the Revolutionary War began, and those writing them were focused on throwing off the chains of despotism and fighting a war.
Those constitutions quickly showed their deficiencies. They scarcely allowed the raising of funds to fight the Revolutionary War. An aversion to executive power, an excessive reliance on legislatures which were too dependent on the people, and a general mistrust of centralized authority led to chaotic relations among the states after the fighting stopped, with threats of trade wars and independent foreign alliances, amid a financial crisis due to the massive war debt.
Despite all this, in 1787 the new nation tapped the wisdom of its most talented and experienced statesmen in the Constitutional Convention. The Framers brought to the Convention their experience with different designs of government from the different states. They looked critically at the successes and failures around them.
I disagree with those who say that the Constitution is just a bundle of compromises. The Convention wasn’t the kind of the kind of swap meet we often see in politics today. Nobody got everything they wanted, but they worked to build consensus around a design that would be worthy of the admiration of future generations. They thought prudently about what was best, but also what the people would accept. They did their best under practical circumstances.
They were lucky that they could assemble under a rule of secrecy to write it. It’s miraculous that the delegates remained discreet and kept the press from stirring up trouble. As Publius notes, earlier constitutions were written hastily, amid immediate danger. In 1787, there were big problems, but the delegates could meet and deliberate without much immediate interference.
It is also lucky that some statesmen who likely would have made strong, persuasive objections to the Constitution (like Jefferson and Patrick Henry) didn’t attend. Later, during the ratification debate, these critics lacked the tools at the disposal of those urging adoption. Those who attended had heard the objections and heard them all rebutted. They could articulate why a certain worrying provision had been adopted by the Convention and explain how it would conduce to the safety and happiness of the people.
The debates during the Convention, as well as several Federalist papers, show that the Framers saw themselves as acting on behalf of all mankind.
There is a section of your course on the Founding called “How to Read The Federalist.” Why do students need help in navigating this collection of essays? How do you make these papers accessible to current students?
The first challenge confronting students reading The Federalist is the language. We no longer encounter elevated diction and long periodic sentences in our newspapers; the Founding generation did. In class last night we covered Federalist No. 9. Look at that first paragraph, describing the failures of earlier republics. It is exquisite. I can say that after reading it for 20 years. But to a new reader, it may be daunting.
We also don’t study history the way people of that time did, so many of the historical illustrations Publius uses may be distracting to readers today. In class, I use the Kesler edition, which offers extensive notes explaining these references. It also includes an introduction on the history and theory of The Federalist, Hamilton’s preface, an index, and the relevant Founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
Finally, students may have heard that The Federalist is a work of propaganda, designed to manipulate unthinking people into accepting a plan that elites wanted to impose upon them. They start out with a bad opinion of the work.
To alleviate the first two problems, I engage in a fairly close reading of The Federalist with my students, especially at first. It’s a little hard in the beginning, but once the general objects are made clear, and they get into the mode of the writing, the students can pick up the arguments. It helps that we spend some time covering the events leading up to the writing of the new Constitution, so students have been thinking about the problems before Publius articulates them. Time is always limited. In my view, it is better to cover ten papers well than to assign thirty and hope the student can scavenge something substantial.
As to the third: Publius acknowledges in the first paper that he is going to make a case for the ratification of the Constitution. Of course he presents his case in the most favorable light possible. But the effort is not sinister; his arguments are “open to all and may be judged by all.” He invites readers to review his reasoning. I emphasize this to my students, and we judge the arguments, their strengths and weaknesses.
How widely read were these essays 225 years ago, during the Ratification debates?
The papers were widely read. They are addressed to the people of the state of New York, since Hamilton and Jay, themselves New Yorkers, as well as Madison, worried that the Antifederalists in that state would prevent the ratification of the Constitution. (They were right to worry: New York late and only narrowly approved it.) The articles were widely published, first in papers in New York City, then in surrounding areas. Before the series was complete, the first 36 papers were published as a volume for distribution outside of New York. Most of the rest (all but the very last) were published in a second volume.
If you were to recommend to aspiring students of American history two or three essential Federalist papers, which would they be?
- Number 1, which asks: Can Americans prove that men are capable of self-government? They must, because the fate of mankind depends upon it.
- Number 39: A great discussion of republicanism and federalism.
- Number 49: Arguing that public opinion of the Constitution matters, and offering a fascinating explanation why human nature necessitates the separation of powers.
What are your students most surprised to learn about the Founding?
That “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” During the Founding era, citizens and leaders asked who should exercise the powers of government, and how. Who should be in charge of war, and what kind of an army should we have? What limited powers will the national government exercise, and what powers will states retain? Will representatives have the same interests as those they represent, or will they develop interests apart from the people? How should taxes be implemented, and for what purposes? If judges are to be independent, how can we be sure they will only judge, and not legislate? What if the people, on whose consent the government relies, make bad choices? We ask all these questions today.
What do secondary school teachers find most useful about your course on the Founding?
Many are happy to find out that the Federalist Papers aren’t as scary as they thought they would be. It is possible to use them effectively in a high school class. They are also interested in figuring out how to follow particular themes (i.e., slavery, representation, federalism, executive power) through the Constitutional Convention and how to present those in a clear way to their own students.
New! Ashbrook’s Live Online Graduate Institutes in American History and Government are rigorous, 2 semester credit hour graduate-level courses in American history and government offered in a live, interactive webconference format. Whether you are looking to refresh and renew your skills as a teacher, renew or add a subject field to a teaching license, or simply get a taste of the graduate school experience, Ashbrook’s Live Online Graduate Courses provide the rich content and convenient delivery format you are looking for.
New! Ashbrook introduces a series of free webinars designed to bring the nation’s best historical scholarship into your classroom. Delivered live via the WebEx web conference platform, your students can learn from leading scholars in US history and government. You and your students can see, hear, and speak to our professors live and online.
Each webinar investigates key themes in American history and various topics are offered on a schedule designed to track the curriculum and pacing of an Advanced Placement United States History course. For more information about the program or to apply to host a webinar in your classroom, click here.
The Ashbrook Center offers a pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. These convenient booklets make excellent classroom resources for American history, civics, and government classes.
Copies of the booklet are available for $2.00 each. Special bulk pricing is available for quantities of 10, 25, 100 or more. Standard shipping and handling is included at no charge; rush delivery is available for an additional fee.
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