Two hundred and thirty-three years ago, a group gathered in Philadelphia. Fifty-five men entered the red brick Pennsylvania state house, shuttered the windows and embarked upon a rare sort of work: defining how they would govern and be governed. For 100 days they debated, compromised, drafted, edited, and debated some more. In the end, on Sept. 17, 1787, they emerged with the United States Constitution.
It is worth noting this was not the first attempt. The gathering in 1787 was first initiated with the intention of revising the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution that had been ratified six years prior. That constitution, however, was proving weak and lacking the teeth necessary for enforcement. As the Constitutional Convention kicked off, the conversation quickly turned from revising the old articles to scrapping them and starting over.
It is difficult to overstate how painstaking this process was. Discussions turned into arguments and threatened to derail the work. Contention and fierce debate surrounded wide-ranging issues: the formation of the branches of government, what rights states would retain, how many delegates would represent each state, the legality of slavery and whether slaves would be represented, with whom veto power would lie, how monetary policy would be decided, who would have power over the treasury. The pressure was on to get to a constitution that all could agree to and that would work and endure for the centuries to come.
As the delegates in attendance were working on the final product, the oldest statesman there stood and gave a speech: “For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected?”
Benjamin Franklin, here, acknowledges the document’s imperfections and notes the fallibility of its framers. He captures the impossible difficulty of the task they have undertaken. Yet, he turns this perspective to optimism, ultimately supporting the Constitution and saying it is as close to perfect as anyone could achieve.
Franklin, upon walking out of Independence Hall following the convention, is said to have uttered another truth about the outcome of the delegates’ work.
“What have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” called out a member of the crowd around the building.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” replied Franklin.
The framing of the constitution is worth revisiting as we close out 2020, this annus horribilis that has seen a presidential impeachment, a deadly pandemic, an economic shutdown, unprecedented unemployment, civil unrest, a national reckoning around inequality and race relations, the loss of a Supreme Court Justice and, finally, the defeat of a presidential incumbent. Given this context, it feels more notable than ever that we have in fact kept our republic intact.