Patrick Henry took one look at the proposed convention — meant to take up the shortcomings of the 1781 Articles of Confederation — and refused to participate, saying he “smelt a rat.”
Well, Friday marks 234 years since that rat of a gathering produced the “miracle of Philadelphia,” when the U.S. Constitution emerged from a closed-door convention of American notables.
Accordingly, the nation is celebrating Constitution Day, and what do we make of that?
For starters, the “miracle” refers to the fact that it got done at all. Remarkable it was that “so many different states,” Washington wrote in amazement to Lafayette, “… in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices, should unite in forming a system of national government, so little liable to well-founded objections.”
As miracles go, it was mixed. It represented a compromise on questions — slavery, most prominently — that did not really lend themselves to compromise, a reality that would be brutally clarified in the years coming.
So, in a sense, the Constitution worked and didn’t. Not just on that vexing question, but on many others.
If we could just get clear in our heads on the distinctions between success and disappointment — that the Constitution was born of an intensely human process, crowded with error, hope, miscalculation and genius — it could grant us some piece of mind in present circumstances.
To this day, we refer to our attempts at self-government as an “experiment” and rightly so.
Recall your high school chemistry class, with the occasional tendency for things to explode and smoke? That gives you the flavor of our national Constitution and maybe some reassurance. We don’t always have to be so hard on ourselves.
The achievement of 1787 was never perfect — 74 years later, in 1861, the whole thing literally blew up in our face — but it offered a reasonable basis for continued improvement. Incremental, but often substantial advances have been made.
And will again, if we work at it. Too often apathy, inertia and neglect displace public engagement.
It’s a tough, challenging, problematic haul, doing self-government this way. After all (this has been said many times), democracies, on a continental scale, generally flop.
When a democracy attempts to operate on the basis of a mixed culture — people from different places, speaking different languages, believing different things — that also tempts fate. Centrifugal forces tend to build up, often threatening to throw the pieces asunder.
To avoid that, so went the theory (our founders were big on theories), the Constitution did not attempt one grand, national thing, governed by the same identical laws, administered and directed from a central location.
Instead, they set out to bind the states on a layered, separate basis and govern in a manner that secures unity while preserving freedom.
We need not march in lockstep. Not all of us, everywhere, all the time.
Out of such thinking emerged an American brand of federalism, of dual sovereignty, of shared responsibility, of a national Congress and state governments — and, within those state governments, those jurisdictional divisions, cities and counties, that are collectively known as local governments.
Would these layers of government be separate and distinct? No, not really. But we never consolidated everything either.
Instead, over the many decades, the relationship between the federal government, the states and local governments contracted toward the center — toward Washington, D.C. — and then released, back towards the states.
The difference now? We stopped talking about it. Discussions of federalism vacated the public sphere. We just muddle along, winging it on such vital matters as the shared management of a viral pandemic, climate change, and natural disasters.
All the things, in other words, that ignore political boundaries and demand an efficient, effective and, thereby, coordinated governmental response.
Sovereignty, James Wilson argued during the Philadelphia debates, remains with the people. That view prevailed, in principle, but that only loads up the burden on “the people” to demand something better than the seldom examined, unsustainable muddle we suffer now.