Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787
By Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier
A masterful dissection of the Constitutional Convention and the personalities, issues, and competitions that drove it. While the American constitution has long been heralded as a champion of human rights and aspirations, it is not perfect. There are some obvious questions that result from the end product, including why the slavery issue was not resolved and how separation of powers was intended to function vs. how it actually functions.
We know well many of the principals, of course, but this work helps us to know those we don’t know so well and to understand the intense and complicated debates over every detail of the new government. It was a trying and sometimes contentious affair and only the character and commitment of these fifty-five men enabled a largely successful outcome. It isn’t perfect and there are issues they knew were left unresolved, but the other option – letting the new nation fail – was not an option. And from that we are left with compromises, sometimes vagueness, and wiggle room.
Slavery and human rights is the biggest failure, of course. Seen from our perspective it is the obvious “how could they?” Seen from their perspective, however, from their point in time, it was a contentious and unsolvable puzzle. The compromise was to punt and thus allow the nation time to grow and mature in hopes that an acceptable solution would emerge. It didn’t, and two generations later we were at war with ourselves. The immediate option was to watch the nation dissolve and that was not something any of these revolutionaries could stomach.
Slavery wasn’t the only issue that divided the convention. State’s rights vs. a strong national government, what kind of legislature and how elected, and what about the executive? How was it to be elected? All of these things that we take for granted today were part of the grand experiment in its early stage. For those in the room there was nothing to be taken for granted, save the name of the first president. Everything else was on the table.
We have the benefit of hindsight and there are easy villains to note. But we should also remember that for their time, their place, and their position the accomplishment of the Constitutional Convention was and is a remarkable achievement. We are in a period of history that is again contentious, pitting citizen against citizen. Emotions and agendas are driving us further apart, our energy is spent in dividing ourselves, “Cancel culture” is on a rampage. We would do well to look back on this gathering of patriots and honor their commitment and hard, even agonizing work. Instead of tossing them and what they created into the trash bin, we would do better to roll up our sleeves and work alongside them. They formed a new nation. It isn’t perfect but it is what we have. It is our duty to partner with them in making it better, not to destroy what they labored so hard to give us.
Decision in Philadelphia