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How to Build a Country: The Constitutional Convention of 1787

Teddy takes on the founding fathers
How do you make a country? Who decides who will have the power? How equal are two people at birth if one has lighter skin?

The framers of the Constitution had a lot on their minds as they entered Independence Hall one sunny May morning in 1787. They did not know how long it would take, or what it would look like; they only knew that once they were done they would have laid down the foundation for the world's first democracy. (Or was it? Check out Becky's dispatch on the Iroquois Confederacy for another point of view).

Independence Hall, like a sauna in the summer
The fifty-five men participating in this effort were sent as representatives from twelve of the thirteen states (Rhode Island did not send a delegation to Philadelphia). They were for the most part wealthy, well educated, and of course all were white males. They collectively owned thousands of slaves. In fact, the three largest slaveholders in the United States were at the convention (George Washington, George Mason, and John Rutledge).

There were many matters that had to be settled. For example, should there be a national currency? At the time, each of the thirteen colonies was printing their own type of money. What about slaves? Would blacks be considered subhuman, semi-human, or free men?

The broadest question these guys were considering was the distribution of power between the states and the central government. The supporters of a strong central government became known as the federalists. Guess what the opponents were called?

The anti-federalists!

DON'T LEAVE! Things get much more exciting!

All right, get this: Alexander Hamilton, defender of the rich and privileged, thought that the rich, or what he called "the first class," deserved a guaranteed spot in government. His idea was that the president and senate be chosen for life. Fortunately, instead of returning the country to a virtual monarchy, he was shut down.

Looking at today's presidential candidates it is apparent that Hamilton's values of a political and economic elite have made their way through American history. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore are men who inherited their wealth and political positions from their fathers. They certainly have never experienced "working class" life and the issues that are important to that mass of people.

One value that has changed since the founding fathers wrote the constitution is the legal status of black people.

After some debating, our forefathers decided that black slaves counted as 3/5 of a person in the US census. These numbers were used to determine the amount of representation each state would have in Congress. While they were at least considered part of a complete person, they still were not allowed to vote. Neither were women, Indians, or poor whites without property.

What good is a democracy if all the people cannot participate? Fortunately for us, our forefathers could tell that their document was far from finished. They included provisions that made it possible to change the law of the land through amendments to the constitution.

The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, had to be promised in order to get enough states to support the constitution. It was decided that nine of the thirteen colonies had to approve of the constitution in order for it to pass.

Oops! What did Teddy do to that bell?
Since it holds such a respected and honored place in our history textbooks, it is hard to imagine a time when our constitution was not supported by all of our founding fathers. In reality however, our nation was almost evenly split over the acceptance of the Constitution. Before it could become our country's official law, heated debate would ensue between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists across the 13 states.

The two largest states, New York and Virginia, were hotspots over the ratification of the constitution. Without voting "yes," those two strong states would have prevented our constitution from ever being supported as it was written. In New York, a series of anonymous letter were printed in the newspapers advocating a strong central government that the constitution supported. The letters came to be known as the Federalist Papers. The authors turned out to be the very men writing the constitution. They were also very open about their intent. James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, wrote that a strong central government was essential to the new nation's existence. He felt that "a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project," would be controlled if the elite government were allowed to make important political decisions for the "people."

In other words, events like Shay's rebellion could be isolated and repressed by a stronger central government. Alexander Hamilton, who also wrote some of the federalist papers, talked about Shay's rebellion directly:

"The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative."

These elitist men thought that voters were ignorant and easily swayed to potentially "wicked" ideas. To prevent the people from having direct access to their federal government, an Electoral College was set up. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as its combined number of senators and congressman. These guys, who are not chosen democratically, are trusted to vote with the people, but there is no law saying they have to. This way if the people voted for too radical a change, there would be a filter of privileged few that would pick a more moderate choice.

You know what? This Electoral College is still in place today! We the people still do not decide who will be our president. Twice in our history the people have picked one man to be president and the Electoral College has elected the other (1876 Hayes chosen over Tilden, 1888 Harrison chosen over Cleveland). The Electoral College makes it difficult for third parties to emerge, which has given our country a legacy of two political parties that are often indistinguishable.

There is lots of talk today about American voters being apathetic. Could it be because the dominant political parties do not represent them? In the last few elections, only about half of the eligible voters have gone out and actually voted. Countries like even communist Vietnam have voter turnouts of around 90%. What makes American voters so "apathetic"?

While some people argue that Americans are fat and happy the way they are, I see a government that is increasingly responsive to the demands of wealthy corporations. By giving millions of dollars to politicians, corporations have hijacked our democracy.

Kids reach out and touch democracy
Here are some questions for class:How many of you out there plan to vote when you turn 18?Of those who do not plan to vote, do your parents vote?

Do you see any disturbing trend? In my high school, the wealthier students were more likely to participate in the election, while most of my black and Latino classmates saw no need to vote. Statistically speaking, they were right. There is no way that one person's vote can make a difference in a presidential election. If you examine the situation, isn't it disturbing that those who would benefit most from truly democratic election are the ones who do not vote?

Believe it or not, this was actually the intention of our founding fathers two hundred and twenty years ago. They wanted to empower the people, but they had their own interests at stake. As plantation owners and big city business owners, they did not want to lose control over their wealth. The most telling indicator of the economic orientation of our founding fathers is the change they made to the declaration of Independence.

Teddy in front of Independence Hall
If you only want to remember ONE THING about the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution, remember this: In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men have certain rights, and that among them was "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In 1787, the framers of the constitution changed that line to read that those rights were "life, liberty, and property."

What happened to his pursuit of happiness?
Although some consider the Constitutional Convention "ancient history," the debate over its wording, and over items included and items excluded, still rages on. Because of this, the creation of our country's governing document needs to be examined continuously and carefully. The words of our constitution must be read with the context of eighteenth century events in mind, so that we understand why our founding fathers wrote what they did. Today we are still dealing with issues of equality, distribution of wealth, and governmental power; some of the issues they encountered in Philadelphia two centuries ago. But do our forefathers' decisions still apply? Cases are constantly brought before the Supreme Court challenging the meaning and legitimacy of their words. We are constantly realizing that something once deemed acceptable (like forcing blacks to sit in the back of bus, discriminating against gays and lesbians, or harpooning whales) is now a terrible outrage. The more we learn and grow as a people, the more we need to reassess laws and how they are structured so they are appropriate and fair for our times.


Please email me at:teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Rebels on a Roll!
Becky - When politicians wore guns...
Daphne - Just what were they fighting for?
Making A Difference - One nation under…corporate control?
Team - How constitutional is the Constitution?
Kevin - Democracy: use it or lose it!