The fifty-five men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were not there to come up with amendments to the Articles of Confederation.
Their marching orders were to revise the Articles. To rewrite the contract among the thirteen former British colonies.
The Articles didn’t work, and everybody knew it. There were no federal courts, there was no President. No power to tax. The Congress was the whole government. Every state had one vote, regardless of its population. It took nine of the thirteen states to pass a law, and all thirteen had to agree on any amendment to the Articles.
The Articles of Confederation couldn’t be fixed. Rhode Island would always vote ‘No.’
So the Founders knew they were writing on a clean piece of paper. Wisely, they began by spelling out who they represented and what it was that they were trying to do.
The Preamble begins with “We the People of the United States.” That’s very important. The Articles of Confederation had been an agreement among thirteen independent states. It was more like a treaty than a constitution.
The Philadelphia delegates saw themselves, not as representatives of state governments, but as agents of the people. The people of every state. All the people. And their purpose was to draft a constitution. To create a nation.
They began by spelling out their goals:
1. To form a more perfect union.
2. To establish justice
3. To ensure domestic tranquility
4. To provide for the common defense.
5. To promote the general welfare.
6. To secure the blessings of liberty.
I’ve thought about the Preamble for many years and it seems to me that they got their objectives in the right order.
Union was first, because whatever they were going to do, they had to do it together.
Justice was next, because they wanted a nation ruled by laws and not by despots.
Then came domestic tranquility, because they feared the tyranny of the mob.
Defense was fourth because a united, just and peaceful nation would be worth fighting for.
The fifth priority was the general welfare, the common good, the advancement of the human condition.
The final goal was liberty, seen as a blessing to be passed on to future generations.
Agreement on these goals was only the beginning. There were big states and little states. There were slave states and free states. There were farm states and commercial states. Each state decided how many delegates to send.
Rhode Island didn’t send anybody.
Compromise, compromise. That was the name of the game.
Should Congress vote by states or by population? Why not a House and a Senate?
The Federalists wanted a strong central government. The anti-federalists were afraid of a strong central government. OK, let’s spell out just what powers the central government will have.
And leave everything else to the states? Yes, to the states and to the people themselves.
But what about the future? Can we trust this new nation to the Congress? Will they change the constitution we’re writing? Can they renege on the compromises we’re making?
Make another compromise. Three quarters of the states must approve any amendment. No amendment can eliminate equal representation in the Senate. And if Congress won’t propose needed amendments, give the states a way to have a convention.
A convention. The only place where We The People can be heard.