Constitution Day

  • 17 September 2018
  • NormanL

Monday Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, a time for us to remember and celebrate the official signing of the Constitution in 1787. The National Archives, home to an original copy of the founding document, has a transcribed version available online, complete with links to portions of the original text that have been amended.

The online version also includes brief biographies of all the men who signed the Constitution, in addition to a longer page including those who did not. The Archives reminds us Rhode Island sent no delegates to the constitutional convention.

Not everyone was pleased with the final document, which contained a number of compromises delegates felt were essential to win ratification. Among those who protested the Constitution's provisions were a number of Virginians, including Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving as the nation's ambassador to France. In a letter to James Madison -- the "father" of the Constitution -- Jefferson said the lack of a bill of rights was troubling:

I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly & without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal & unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land & not by the law of Nations. To say, as mr. Wilson does, that a bill of rights was not necessary because all is reserved in the case of the general government which is not given, while in the particular ones all is given which is not reserved, might do for the Audience to whom it was addressed, but is surely a gratis dictum, opposed by strong inferences from the body of the instrument, as well as from the omission of the clause of our present confederation which had declared that in express terms.

Not surprisingly, these objections grew, and a bill of rights was both promised and quickly approved once the ratification process ended.

Jefferson also decried, in much stronger terms, the lack of "rotation in office," what we would call term limits:

The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President. Experience concurs with reason in concluding that the first magistrate will always be re-elected if the constitution permits it. He is then an officer for life.

George Washington established a pecedent for presidents to serve only two terms -- a precedent that survived until Franklin Roosvelt's successful bid for a third term in 1940.  While presidential term limits were adopted after the Second World War, limits on members of Congress remain elusive, as do those for federal judges.

For all of its flaws, the Constitution is a stunning achievement. It gave the new Republic a firm yet flexible foundation. We hope you will take the time to re-read the document -- what it does, what it intends, and whether we have strayed from it. 

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