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David Nightingale: The U.S. Constitution

First page of Constitution of the United States.
Public Domain

William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of England during the reign of Queen Victoria, said “The U.S. Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served in the early 1900s on the United States Supreme Court wrote: “The U.S. Constitution is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” [p.ix, ref. 1].

So this is a brief essay about our constitution written down in 1787, eleven years after the Declaration of Independence.

There has always been the basic human desire to “govern ourselves,” but all groups, in order to avoid war and chaos, need a government of some kind – be it dictatorship or democracy. Currently, Catalonia for example, has a strong drive to govern itself; and many other regions of the world are dissatisfied with their status quo.

In the critical and notable year 1787, 55 men met in Philadelphia, sent as representatives from 12 states, with the small state of Rhode Island refusing. Over 70 delegates from America’s then 13 states had originally been chosen to attend, but 55 was the recorded number. They met throughout the hot stifling Philadelphia summer, for the sole purpose of revising the 10-year-old Articles of Confederation, which were failing, much as England’s Magna Carta had failed in the 13th century. 

The most active movers behind the convention were Washington, Hamilton and Madison.

Nearly all of the delegates were young, many in their 20s and 30s. James Monroe, son of a Scottish farmer was 30, and the oldest by far was octogenarian Ben Franklin, he-who-had-discovered that electricity came in pluses and minuses, and who was held in esteem by the scientists of Europe. Indeed, he was the reason many Philadelphia houses had lightning conductors on their roofs. Madison was 36; Hamilton 31, and General Washington 55. The average age, that momentous year, even counting Ben Franklin, was around 43. Moreover, many of the delegates were accomplished, some having already been young legislators in their respective states, and a few were state governors. Not a few, like Monroe, had Scottish connections; and James Wilson, later nominated by General Washington to the Supreme Court had been born in Fife and had studied at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.

As we said, the Articles of Confederation, had only been loosely adhered to by the 13 states. There was no effective central power; some taxes were collected but some states hadn’t bothered to pay. In Massachusetts there had been brawls between farmers and tax collectors – coming to a head in the well-known Shay’s Rebellion – and there was no money for a national army. During the fighting with Britain, soldiers had often fought barefoot and had had to supply their own food, clothing and arms.

What the convention achieved under their chairman George Washington in that humid summer was extraordinary, though still imperfect, and as the late Catherine Drinker Bowen said in her book Miracle at Philadelphia, “compromise sat on Washington’s shoulder like a dove” [p.x, ibid.] throughout the proceedings.

Sometimes they despaired, because of all the disagreements.

John Adams, from Harvard, said at one point he’d seen “more difficulty from our attempts to govern ourselves than from all the fleets and armies of Europe.”

Some of the imperfections were later addressed in a series of Amendments, the first 12 being referred to as the Bill of Rights, which included Massachusetts’ insistence on freedom of speech and of the press.

But by 1788 their work was actually ratified, by virtue of 9 out of 12 states agreeing, and so the Constitution was adopted.

All this is well-known, of course – and so much more to be said – but no time to say it in a four-minute essay.


1. “Miracle at Philadelphia”, by Catherine Drinker Bowen; Book of the Month Club, Inc, NY, (1966) ; Little, Brown & Company, (1986)  34, Beacon St, Boston, Massachusetts 02106.

2. “Liberty & Law; Refelctions on the Constitution in American Life and Thought”, edited by A.Wells and A.Askew; W.B.Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 255 Jefferson Ave S.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503 (1987).

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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