Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



Guest Author:  Michael Medved
Excerpted from his best-selling book: "THE AMERICAN MIRACLE"

Americans rightly embrace the Constitution as a cornerstone of the country, a fortunate foundation both inevitable and (mostly) immutable.  In recent years, Tea Party populists and many others have seemed to suggest that the words of the national charter were inscribed by the Almighty on tablets of stone; they urge a return to those sacred precepts with the same fervor that religious believers demand renewed adherence to the Ten Commandments.  Even among those who most revere the Constitution, few recognize how close the founders came to failure in drafting it, and then again in fighting for its ratification.  To the fifty-five flawed and colorful individuals who framed the founding charter in Philadelphia, there was nothing inevitable about their success.  The what-ifs haunted them, as they should amaze us: What if Washington had declined to participate, or if eighty-one-year-old Franklin had proven too infirm to ride in his sedan chair to the red-brick State House?  What if Madison had failed to lay out a detailed blueprint in advance of the convention, or if the amiable Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer had neglected to take his bewildering little stroll on the day of a crucial vote, or if Few and Pierce of Georgia hadn't boarded a stagecoach for New York before the same decisive moment because they considered the business of the Confederation Congress more important than the work of the Constitutional Convention? 

NOTE: Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, one of the least known (and most oddly-named) delegates at the Constitution Convention, knew that small-state representatives weren't bluffing when they spoke of leaving the Convention if they were not given equal representation with the large states.  He deliberately threw the result by disappearing for a key vote, ensuring the defeat of his faction in order to deliver a greater victory for his country.  In the process, he single-handedly delivered the United States Senate as we know it today, with large states and small states identically represented.  

The hopes of the framers could have collapsed at any number of intersections along the way.  They wanted their work to last for generations, even centuries, but they remained uncertain as to its long-term prospects.  From faraway Paris, where he represented his country at the court of the French king, Thomas Jefferson hailed the Philadelphia convention as "an assembly of demigods" and, in a letter to Adams, expressed "no doubt that all its measures will be good and wise."  But he had no knowledge of the bruising battles and occasional blunders that the demigods endured in their top-secret proceedings.  He could only marvel at the final result as a charter that was "unquestionably the wisest ever yet presented to men." 

Whether or not divine providence actually guided their efforts, a providential perspective unmistakably fostered the vision and determination that enabled them to persevere.  Eight of the convention delegates had previously signed the Declaration of Independence with its concluding phrase announcing a "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."  Washington, who calmly presided over the convention's sometimes doubtful deliberations, later began his First Inaugural Address by telling "the people of the United States" that "every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency."  Washington and Madison, two of the guiding spirits of the perplexing process, both described the result as a "miracle," as did other participants. 

Charles Pinckney wrote from Charleston in 1788 that "when the general convention met, no citizen of the United States could expect less from it than I did, so many jarring interests and prejudices to reconcile!... But when the great work was done and published...I was struck with amazement.  Nothing less than that superintending hand of Providence, that miraculously carried us through the war (in my humble opinion), could have brought it about so complete, upon the whole." 

Next week: The Bill of Rights.