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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 8

The Miracle in Philadelphia
by Ann Streit

September 17 marks the 230th anniversary of the signing of our nation’s Constitution but the anniversary will pass with little notice: no festivals, feasts or fireworks will mark the occasion.  And yet, no document written by man, has had the impact of the US Constitution.  Benjamin Rush, delegate and signer of the Constitution believed the “…hand of God was employed in this work as that God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel…”

Written by the First Continental Congress in November of 1777, America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had proven inadequate to unite 13 very different states.  If the fledgling country was to survive, it needed a new direction. 

Twelve delegates representing just five states attended the Annapolis Convention in September 1786 for the purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation but ultimately recommended that a convention, now known as the Constitutional Convention, be held July 1787 for the purpose of creating an entirely new form of government.

The inception of new governments have, throughout history, been invariably the result of violence, deception or accident.  But the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was something new in the annals of history: a voluntary and deliberate assembly of men that, without the threat of external force and unbowed by domestic insurrection, would generate a government unlike anything that had preceded it, under which they and future generations would live.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the stature of the men that met in the stifling heat for four months, that Philadelphia summer.  Thomas Jefferson, in Paris at the time of the convention, described the 59 delegates as an “assembly of demigods.”  However, much more than simply well-known, powerful legends, these men came from a variety of walks of life that allowed them to consider the needs of the public they were there to serve.  They were farmers, merchants, pastors, printers, lawyers, scientists, shippers, soldiers and educators.  James Madison described them by saying: “…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…”  

The delegates at the convention were among the most educated of what was then, a highly literate population. They knew the Bible. They read the best of the poets and playwrights, including Milton and Shakespeare. They learned history from Plutarch and Tacitus. They studied the great Greek and Roman philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cato and Cicero.  They considered the views of the enlightenment philosophers Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau.  Their inquiries included theology, the nature of man and theory of government.  They considered what had worked throughout history, what failed and they asked “why?”.  The writers of the Constitution didn’t make it up as they went.  Like Newton, they could see more because they stood “on the shoulders of giants.”  

These intellectual giants debated, argued, compromised, prayed, and yes, partook of some serious libation, but ultimately generated a document consisting of 4400 words: both the shortest written Constitution and now, the oldest.  History is replete with periods where men accomplished great things to advance mankind: the Hebrew patriarchs, the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the artists of the Renaissance, the scientists of the Scientific Revolution and the thinkers of the Enlightenment.  However, with the exception of the Apostles, no group had ever worked together like those at the Constitutional Convention to promote a single idea.  These mere mortals created a document that would forever change the world.  That is the miracle in Philadelphia.