On June 14, I keynoted a conference on the American Founding. The conference was sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an educational and publishing non-profit that focuses on civic education for college students.
The keynote included six crucial facts about the framing and ratification of our Constitution:
First: The Constitution was the product of careful application of the wisdom of thousands of years. The Framers took lessons from the Judeo-Christian tradition, classical Greece and Rome, the experiences of early modern Europe, and the centuries-long process by which Englishmen resisted authoritarian government and memorialized their victories in written documents.
Second: Nearly all the Framers had been been given full authority by the states they represented to propose a new system to replace the Articles of Confederation.
Third: By historical standards, the ratification of the Constitution was an extraordinarily democratic process. While certainly not as inclusive as 21st century elections, it was much more democratic than commonly realized. Participants included not just the well-to-do, but also people of very limited means. In some states, participants included women and free African Americans.
Fourth: The Constitution is a superbly-crafted legal document. While the Framers made a few drafting errors (mostly since corrected by amendments), the majority of modern criticisms of the Constitution’s wording are based on ignorance. For example, provisions that some modern writers claim are vague or meaningless were standard phrases of 18th century law with understood content.
Fifth: Contrary to the thinly-researched assertions of some writers, the Founders believed the Constitution should be interpreted according to the understanding of the ratifiers. If the ratifiers’ understanding of a particular clause was unclear, then the Founders would have us interpret the instrument according to its original public meaning.
Sixth: All of this matters. The Constitution provided the balance of freedom and order necessary to enable America to take the lead in creating the modern world. The critical period extended from the Founding until just before World War II—the time frame in which the Constitution’s restrictions on federal power were generally honored. Most subsequent progress rests on advances made during that creative period. This was also the era when slavery finally ended and women were emancipated.
Without the Constitution, we might still be living short lives . . . in dark and drafty houses. . . . traveling on horseback. . . milking cows by hand. . . and reckoning our accounts with quill pens by candlelight.
And some of us might still be slaves.