Reflections From History And Faith
By Jeff Olson
On the upcoming 235th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, I hope you will join me in pausing and reflecting on this grand document – a one-of-a-kind accomplishment in the annals of human history. Its roots run deep into the transcendent and the experience of mankind, its history extends back through the ages, its challenge remains before us, and its future hangs in the balance.
In the opening paragraph of The Federalist, October 27, 1787, Alexander Hamilton poses a question: a universal question – not only for that day in time but for all time, including and especially our own.
“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, 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. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
Monday, September 17, 1787, dawned clear and cold in Philadelphia with a brisk touch of autumn in the air. For those who attended the Constitutional Convention, the time away from home and business had been costly, both in terms of family and livelihood. Each was deeply concerned for his country which was struggling through some major growing pains, economically and organizationally to name but a few. States were functioning irrespective of one another and the freedom and unity preserved and strengthened by the blood and treasure spent in the War for Independence was in serious jeopardy. The instability was so severe that England and Spain were confidently postured to pick up the pieces of the colonies when things fell apart. Something needed to be done, as the Articles of Confederation proved to be an inadequate governing document. What was scheduled to begin on May 14 didn’t get underway until May 25 when a quorum of state delegates was finally reached. Just 3 months earlier, Congress had adopted the Convention of Annapolis recommendation that this convention of all the states be held to revise the Articles of Confederation. However, it became clear to the delegates once they convened that the Articles could not be successfully amended. What followed then became four arduous months of commitment, sacrifice, debate, deliberation, compromise and prayer and all through a very hot summer.
The genius of the Constitutional Convention included an enormous treasure of knowledge, experience, and wisdom – all taking into account man’s vain and unsuccessful attempts at self-government through the ages. The failed democracies of the Greek city-states and the decline of the great Roman republic were among the lessons of history which informed the convention. The delegates also knew that more than 7 centuries of British experience and the social/civil institutions of the American colonies developed over the previous 150 years of self-government would serve as relevant references, proven precedents, and reliable supports from which to construct a national constitution particular to the American culture. These intermediate institutions would need to be preserved and remain empowered so that their inherent and foundational role in sustaining an American polity could continue.
Trying to achieve the proper balance between the claims of freedom and the claims of authority – anarchy and tyranny – through a national government was a delicate, tedious, and arduous process, but it was undergirded with a realistic and truthful understanding of the human condition. Concepts such as three branches of government, checks and balances, federalism, and the primacy of individual freedom, responsibility, and accountability are rooted in biblical principles and remain fundamental safeguards against tyranny. These underlying precepts are what made the convention itself the first of its kind in the world and what has made the Constitution so unique and enduring in forming the first self-governing nation in history.
At one particular juncture of the convention, the delegates were in a quagmire of divisiveness and on the brink of walking out and rendering the convention a dismal failure. It was then and there that the elder statesman Benjamin Franklin offered the following wisdom. “The small progress we have made after 4- or five-weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances. In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance. I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest. I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.” From this point forward, the convention continued its work in a greater state of harmony and unity towards one purpose and goal.
Did this produce a perfect constitution? Did every delegate get what he wanted? The answer to all these of course is no. What the delegates did understand is the fundamental maxim that politics is the art of the possible, the reality that compromise is often the best that can be done at the time. In doing so, they also set in motion a process to be characterized by civility and mutual respect which would provide opportunities to meet on the turf of the public square and legislative chambers another day. The result: a document that made possible the continual, gradual unfolding of human liberty under law – a journey guided by transcendent principles, fraught with humanity’s inherent frailties and God-given virtues living and learning through trial, success, and error which slowly but assuredly moved our nation steadily closer to the ideals set forth in 1776. Sure, we strayed off course along the way, but a course correction was always around the corner. Whether or not our nation makes one this time remains to be seen.
As president of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington concluded in retrospect, “It appears to me, little short of a miracle that the Delegates from so many different States, in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices, should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well-founded objections.” As the Constitution’s chief architect, James Madison stated “I feel it a duty to express my profound and solemn conviction, driven from my intimate opportunity of observing and appreciating the views of the Convention, collectively and individually, that there never was an assembly of men charged with a great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives, or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them, than were the members of the Federal Convention of 1787.”
As the sage of the convention, the oldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin saw it this way: “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
Of the 55 Constitutional Convention members who had attended at various times, 39 were present for the final day and signatures. According to James Madison, “Whilst the last members were signing it, Doct [Benjamin] 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 vicissitudes 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.”
A final appeal of the Convention came from its closing letter to Congress: “That [the Constitution] may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.” The letter bore George Washington’s signature, and “By unanimous order of the Convention” was written underneath.
As James Madison summed up: “The essence of government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
After the adjournment of the Convention, a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Dr. Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The French historian, Guizot, once asked James Russell Lowell, “How long will the American republic endure?” Lowell replied: “As long as the ideas of the men who founded it continue dominant.” As we have seen first-hand, especially over the past 50 years, no matter how solid a constitution may be in principle and how admirable it may look on paper, it will become ineffectual unless the virtue of the people informs and supports an enduring moral order of obligation and personal responsibility. As John Adams expressed it: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Catherine Drinker Bowen, author of the classic book from which the title of this article was borrowed, stated in her text – “Miracles do not occur at random…Every miracle has its provenance, every miracle has been prayed for…If miracles are men’s wishes fulfilled, so with the Miracle at Philadelphia.”
In 2022, perhaps another miracle is in order.
Cover Image: Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention. Junius Brutus Stearns (1856). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 50.2.1. https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-8052859/