234 years ago today, the Constitution of the United States was signed in Independence Hall. The Constitutional Convention had been meeting since May 25 through the particularly sweaty summer of 1787, and they had finally signed their names on the parchment and sent it out to the people to debate. The document they produced would be approved by the states next year and brought into force a year after that.
While July 4, 1776, marks the colonies’ formal separation from Britain, America as a country wasn’t brought into being then. The Articles of Confederation had established a “league of friendship.” It was only with the Constitution that the United States of America came into the world not as a partnership, not as an alliance, but as a country.
The Constitution that emerged from Philadelphia was truly unique. Large countries with millions of people across thousands of miles were always ruled by some sort of king or queen. Democracy had always been understood to be the domain of a few small states; it sprang up in one form or another in Athens, Rome, and Switzerland.
Our Constitution, though, established a system of democracy on a much larger scale. It separated out power between the state and federal government, and between the branches of the federal government itself. This Federalist plan to turn independent states into interdependent ones, to make a government of, by, and for the People, a reality across the land was and remains a remarkable and unmatched success. It was the first successful experiment with a large-scale republican democracy. Fortunately, it heralded many more to come.
The Bill of Rights that came after ratification might be the most famous part of the Constitution, but the core text itself laid out the structure of our government, establishing, restraining, and separating the powers of the federal government. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2008, “it is a mistake to think that the Bill of Rights is the defining, or even the most important, feature of American democracy. Virtually all the countries of the world today have bills of rights. You would not feel your freedom secure in most of them.” Testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Scalia put it more simply “The real key to the distinctiveness of America is the structure of our government.”
We rightly celebrate the Declaration of Independence and our separation from Britain on the 4th of July, an instantly recognizable date in the calendar. Today, on the 17th of September, let’s celebrate the Constitution and the great republic it ordained.
This Constitution Day is the perfect time to engage with the founding document of the greatest country in the world. Along with reading the text itself, there are several great resources for those interested in learning more about the Constitution.
- The National Constitution Center has an Interactive Constitution tool, where you can break down the text article by article, section by section, amendment by amendment, and see disagreements on their interpretation.
- To listen to it, it’s available as a podcast.
- James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote The Federalist papers to garner support for ratification of the Constitution. It can be read online or purchased.
- To keep the party going after the day ends, check out a book on the Constitution. For a deep but readable dive into the Constitutional Convention, the people who attended it, and the text they produced (and a good case for why James Wilson is an underrated founding father) is America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Amar. For a few Anti-Federalist perspectives, Written Out of History by Mike Lee is a good place to start.
Happy Constitution Day!
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.