Spring 1787. The American revolution had been won, but no one seemed to know how to govern the new nation. There was no chief executive, no agreement on taxes, or even how they should be collected. The country was teetering on the edge of anarchy. Something clearly had to be done, and quickly. What happened next is nothing short of a miracle. Historian Jay Cost tells the incredible story.
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Spring 1787. The American Revolution had been won.
But there was no peace.
Because there was essentially no government. There were states. But they weren’t united. Not even close.
There was no mechanism to collect taxes.
No way to provide for the national defense.
The nation was living on the edge of anarchy.
George Washington understood this. So did James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. So did many others.
Something clearly had to be done. And fast.
The word went out across the land. A new Constitutional Convention was called for. When Washington announced he would be there, the meeting gained instant credibility.
Fifty-five men from twelve states arrived in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the framework of a national government. There was no guarantee that they would succeed. And even if they did, there was no guarantee that the American people would accept their plan.
Failure was a real possibility. And everybody knew it.
The different interests of the states were just too pronounced—over trade, taxes, and slavery to name just three of a dozen points of conflict.
Yet, they all knew that they had to succeed. Or there would be no country—just a loose collection of individual territories sharing the same continent, easy prey for the European powers.
Not only was America’s future on the line, so was the glorious principle of self-government as stated in the Declaration of Independence, the reason for the Revolutionary War.
So, these fifty-five men locked themselves in a room for four months, working six days a week, through the middle of a hot Philadelphia summer to get it done. They all agreed they would say nothing to the press about their deliberations.
They even closed the window shutters so that no one could look in, making a very hot room even hotter.
As the temperature rose outside, tempers rose inside. Still, they persevered.
On September 17 they finished, and the country and the world learned what they had produce—the Constitution of the United States, 4,500 words of collaborative genius.
How did they do it? There are many answers, many happy accidents, perhaps even divine intervention. But here are three reasons that stand out.
First, they knew the stakes.
The Articles of Confederation under which the country had been operating since the Revolution were clearly inadequate. This was dramatically demonstrated in 1786 when a group of New England farmers took up arms in a tax dispute. Known as Shays’ Rebellion, the rebels came close to overturning the state government of Massachusetts.
No one wanted anarchy. But anarchy was staring the country in the face.
Second, these were very capable men.
They were both learned and pragmatic. Many, like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson were steeped in the great works from classical antiquity—from Thucydides to Aristotle, from Livy to Cicero—and, of course, they knew their Bible.
They were also men of the Enlightenment and saw politics as a kind of science. They studied what had worked in the past and what had failed.
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