What can someone accomplish in four months? It’s possible to play an entire NFL football season, but you’d need another full month to complete the playoffs. You could try to build a new home. But you’d need plenty of cooperation from your contractor to get it finished on time.
Or you could try to write, from scratch, the greatest governing document in history.
Well, no point in trying for that last one, since it’s already been done. That’s right. The U.S. Constitution, which has enabled our country’s growth and success for more than 220 years, was written in a mere four months.
The remarkable four months that gave us the Constitution began 225 years ago, today, on May 25, 1787. State delegates gathered to discuss ways to replace the failing Articles of Confederation. The process proceeded in several stages. One scholar on the Constitution Convention Gordon Lloyd divides the summer into a four-act drama.
Act I (May 1787) centers around the Virginia Plan, which was a proposal for a bicameral legislature, with representation based on state populations. The New Jersey Plan, by contrast, proposed a unicameral legislature with equal representation for all states. The smaller states favored the New Jersey plan, because they feared losing their voice to the larger states under the Virginia Plan. Nevertheless, the Act concludes with the adoption of the Virginia Plan and the creation of a bicameral legislature.
In Act II (June and July), the Convention is at a stalemate. Many delegates are concerned that they have exceeded the Congressional mandate to revise the Articles of Confederation and are worried about the possible failure of an extended republic. The Connecticut Compromise (adopted in mid-July) assuages the majority of these fears. The Compromise blends both federal and national characteristics, thus enabling a republic to succeed on a large scale. Under the Connecticut Compromise, we first encounter the form of Congress that we have today: one in which the House represents the individual people, and the Senate represents the states more completely.
In Act III (July and August), the first drafts of the Constitution are crafted, as a result of debates over specific Congressional powers. Regional struggles are especially evident in the notes from this time, as debates regarding the trade and practice of slavery moved to the forefront.
Act IV (September) encompasses the final three weeks of the Convention. Congressional matters have largely been decided, and the delegates move their attention to the executive branch. After much debate pitting national and federal powers against each other, the Convention adopts the Electoral College: as with the Connecticut Compromise, the President would be elected by a combination of the people and the states. The final draft of the Constitution is written. On the last day of the Convention, James Madison records this in his notes:
Whilst the last members were signing [the Constitution] Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.
Condensing this momentous summer of 1787 into four short paragraphs runs the risk of de-emphasizing its significance. We ought to delve into a study of the Convention, and recognize the incredible work done by brilliant, patriotic men at a time when their country’s very survival was in question. It should be our task this summer to return to the constitutionalism they painstakingly crafted, and to defend it against further attacks.
What Americans can and ought to do is spend these next four months reading the Constitution, and thinking about how to protect and restore it. The Constitution translates the principles of the Founding into a framework of limited republican government that remains central to the American way of life. Visit The Heritage Foundation’s First Principles Web page and check out our three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on constitutional government. When you’re ready for more, dive into the online Heritage Guide to the Constitution, read the primary sources yourself and explore the Constitution in greater depth.
Better yet, be social! Start a reading group to learn about America’s First Principles. Download the Heritage Guide to the Constitution’s online Teaching Companion and learn about the Convention or the entire document.
Over the next four months, Americans will be bombarded with political ads and harsh words from leaders on both sides. That’s part of a rough and tumble political process that doesn’t always look pretty, but has worked well for more than two centuries. We owe our success to the genius of the Founding Fathers, and the brilliance of their work in Philadelphia.