They were drafting a charter for a new nation.
Defining its powers. Spelling out how its leaders were to be chosen and specifying what they could and could not do.
Nobody ever did it before. They were writing on tabula raza, a blank piece of paper.
To be sure, adopting constitutions was a process familiar to the Founders.
In May of 1776, the Continental Congress had advised all thirteen colonies to form governments, and the colonial legislatures went to work writing and adopting state constitutions.
By 1780, every colony had a constitution. They were thirteen sovereign and independent states.
But the United States was not then a single nation. It was called a ’firm league of friendship,’ a confederacy, in which each state retained its freedom and independence.
Creating a nation was virgin territory. Novel. Untried.
Alexander Hamilton put it this way:
It has frequently been remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and their example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
And George Washington wrote this:
…the citizens of America…are…actors on a most conspicuous theatre which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity. This is the time of their political probation. This is the moment when the Eyes of the whole World are turned upon them.
They intended the constitution to be permanent, but they never claimed it was perfect. James Madison said:
A faultless plan was not to be expected. That useful alterations will be suggested by experience, could not but be foreseen. It was requisite, therefore, that a mode for introducing them should be provided.
I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom of the individuals of whom they are composed.
In 1816, Thomas Jefferson had this to say:
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.
The Articles of Confederation were simply a treaty, an agreement among thirteen sovereign states. They could not be amended except by unanimous consent.
The Constitution was different. It was to be amendable. In fact, the first thing Congress did was to propose twelve amendments.
Two hundred years after the constitution was ratified the voice of Ronald Reagan was heard:
Indeed, we gave birth to an entirely new concept in man’s relation to man. We created government as our servant, beholden to us and possessing no powers except those voluntarily granted to it by us. Now, a self-anointed elite in our nation’s capital would have us believe we are incapable of guiding our own destiny. They practice government by mystery, telling us it’s too complex for our understanding. Believing this, they assume we might panic if we were to be told the truth about our problems.
Finally, a quote from old Ben Franklin, who was asked what the convention had created:
A Republic, madam. If you can keep it.
On these pages I ask the questions, “Have we the will? Shall we keep it?