231 years ago today, 39 delegates representing 12 states gathered in a hot, dusty room in Philadelphia to officially sign the document they had voted to approve two days earlier: The United States Constitution.
It had been a 4-month-long process, largely conducted in secret, to negotiate and write the document, replacing the looser Articles of Confederation. Even after months of debate on how to structure and to what degree to centralize power in a federal government, the delegates did not all agree on the contents of the draft, first put into writing for the Constitutional Convention on August 6 with some, like Virginia delegate George Mason, refusing to sign the final document.
And, while now we celebrate September 17 as Constitution and Citizenship Day, the document was not yet in force.
In the eyes of some founders, including Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison, it was missing a critical component, which threatened to quash the new federal government structure before it was built: a bill of rights.
For nearly a year, our nation’s founding states debated, sometimes vehemently, on whether to accept the Constitution as it stood, several demanding the addition of amendments outlining the people’s basic rights.
By July 2, 1789 –13 years to the day since the delegates of the Second Continental Congress had passed Lee Resolution for independence—enough states had ratified the document for it to go into effect, with the promise offered several states – the consideration by the First Federal Congress of proposed amendments – still looming.
It took Congressional representative James Madison another two months to marshal 17 amendments through the newly formed U.S. House and 12 of those through the Senate. They passed the Senate on September 25 and were sent by President George Washington to the states on October 2. It took two more years, until December 15, 1791, for the ten amendments we know now as the Bill of Rights to be approved by the requisite number of states. Finally, 15 years after independence, the core founding documents we know today were in place.
All this is to illustrate that building our country and its values took time. It was a gradual process shaped by ardent debate.
The question looming today is whether we are continuing to build and grow on the foundations laid by the Framers, or beginning to slowly dissolve them.
The Freedom Forum Institute conducts an annual State of the First Amendment survey, which in 2018 showed that 40% of respondents could not name any of the five freedoms laid out in the First Amendment. Of those that could name any, just 13% named freedom of the press. A recent Gallup/Knight study found that fewer college students believe their First Amendment freedoms, including freedom of speech and of the press, to be secure.
Ominously, the State of the First Amendment study has found consistently that nearly a quarter of those surveyed say the First Amendment goes too far in its protections of basic freedoms.
And trust in the institutions the Framers created continues to slip, as does trust in the institutions protected by the Bill of Rights, including the press.
So while we remember and celebrate the creation of the Constitution on September 17, we’d do well to remember it, too, on July 2, on September 25, on October 2, on December 15 and all the days in between.
If we do not remember and uphold those freedoms, we put ourselves in danger of losing them.