Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy    JOINDONATE
Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy    JOINDONATE

A NATION OF CHANGE

founding fathersWe began our beginning with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.   It was a declaration of separation from the denial of rights to ones individual liberty.  It was a declaration of ideals and a dream for the future.  But there was a long way to go between the dream and reality.

We won our fight for independence in 1783, against what we considered the tyrannical rule of England and King George III, and began the business of establishing a nation of laws and one worthy of the cause we fought for.

Our first attempt at this nation’s governance was the “Articles of Confederation”, which was proposed by Congress on November 15, 1777 and ratified on March 1, 1781.  The problem with the Articles of Confederation was that in no way did it form a united nation. Article I named this country the “United States of America” and then forgot the united part.  The States were reluctant to give up their own individual sovereignty and with this in mind they developed a strong State’s rights governing system with almost no central government power. 

Under the Articles of Confederation there was no separation of power and just a unicameral government with no authority.  There were no executive or judicial branches.  Congress did not have the power to collect taxes and could only request money from the states, this despite the fact that the war had put the country into huge debt.  There was no standing army, placing the country without defense.  Each state was able to create its own foreign policy including making its own treaties.   They also had the right to create their own money that may or not be used in the other states.

It became obvious that a nation with a government without governing powers wasn’t going to work.  Representatives of the states met for the Federal Convention in Philadelphia on May 5, 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. Under the influence of James Madison, of Virginia, it was decided that revision wasn’t enough and they went for a complete rewrite for the governance of the nation.  The Federalists pushed for a strong central government and the Anti-Federalists voiced concerns about a country that would start to be like the monarchy they just unshackled themselves from.  States had passed their own constitutions, and they preferred that to a central government constitution that would usurp their own individual authority and powers.

There were questions of how do you form this central government without losing states rights?  How do you address the undue influence of representation in congress of the larger states versus the smaller states?  Several recommendations were put forth.  There was the Virginia Plan where size of the population of the state would determine the number of representatives in the congress.  There was the New Jersey Plan that all states should have an equal number of representatives.  The Connecticut Plan, known as the Great Compromise prevailed, and which we still have today.  It called for equal representation in the Senate and proportional to population representation in the House of Representatives.  After 4 months of debate and compromise, the Constitution was proposed on September 17, 1787 and ratified on March 4, 1789.

George Washington, elected in 1789, was the first elected President to serve after the Constitution went into effect. Prior to the Constitution the country was governed by eight succeeding Continental Congress’s and each headed by a different President.  The first President was John Hanson from Maryland.  There is some discussion as to whether he was really the first President of the country, but it is generally accepted that George Washington was our first President and has been viewed as the Father of the country.

While ratifying the Constitution, a number of states still pushed for greater protection of essential liberties and rights for the people to be included.  Even this was a prolonged fight as to what those rights should be.  Once again it was James Madison who fought as an advocate for those rights to be part of the Constitution..  Congress, in December of 1791 passed the first ten amendments which are known as the “Bill of Rights”.

There were initially 15 amendments that were debated, but twelve were proposed and two were not ratified.  The 11thwas to change the proportional ratio for the House of Representatives and that was never ratified. The 12th was that congress could not change salaries of its members until an election of representatives had been held.  That did not make it then, but two hundred and two years later it became the 27th amendment to the Constitution.

James Madison was so influential in developing the Constitution, that he is called the father of the Constitution.  He made a most important declaration about the Constitution that is ignored by too many people today who believe that the Constitution is carved in stone.  He declared….“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes the ages will produce.”

Following the Bill of Rights, which in the thinking of many, has been viewed a part of the original Constitution, there have been 17 additional amendments that have shown the importance of the need to “not lose sight of the changes the ages will produce”.

To fully understand the process that an amendment goes through before it is ratified and becomes part of the Constitution, it must be passed by two thirds of both houses of Congress and then be passed by three quarters of the states.  The President has no role in creating a new amendment.

A quick look at some, not all, of the Amendments, will give an interesting view of the changing mores of the country throughout our history:

  • The 13th amendment eliminated slavery, proposed and ratified in 1865…
  • The 14th amendment gave the right of citizenship to any one born or naturalized in this country and that right not to be denied by any state, proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868…
  • The 15th amendment gave voting rights to people of color, proposed in 1869 and ratified in 1870…
  • The 17th amendment changed how we elected senators.  At the beginning the state legislatures elected the senators.  This amendment gave the people the vote, proposed 1912 and ratified in 1913…
  • The 18th amendment prohibited the manufacture or transportation of intoxicating liquors.  There probably has never been a law that has been more flouted or led to more crime, proposed in 1917 and ratified in 1919 …
  • The 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, proposed in 1919 and ratified in 1920…
  • The 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment and it was again legal for people to do what they were doing behind closed doors and speakeasies, proposed 1n 1933 and ratified in 1933…
  • The 22nd amendment put a two term limit on how many terms the President of the United States can serve, proposed in 1947 and ratified in 1951…
  • The 24th amendment prohibited the poll tax, proposed in 1962 and ratified in 1964 …
  • The 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18, proposed in 1971 and ratified in 1971…
  •  The 27th amendment that raises for Senators and Representatives could not take effect until an election of Representatives has intervened, proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992.  This one really had a long journey to ratification.

James Madison has been proven right, that different ages will bring different needs and different challenges.  We are definitely living in different times from the age our guiding principals were spelled out in the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  The Founders cherished personal freedom and individual privacy but they never envisioned the social issues now facing the courts.

Our Constitution calls for the separation of church and state, yet there are our contested social issues that are being fought on the grounds of religious tenets.  They couldn’t even begin to imagine the age of technology with its good, its bad, and the impact it has on the cyber world we now live in.  Wars in their day were fought between nations and armies.

Today battle lines are defined between ideologies and scattered terrorists. In the global world that we live in, there are no true borders between nations.  These two ages are coming face to face with each other and a whole new series of decisions will have to be made.

What will our next series of amendments look like?  How much of the sanctity of our original Constitution and Bill of Rights will we hold on to, or how much will be altered by the need to feel secure and the desired need for safety?  The Founding Founders are no longer with us.  I wonder how those great men of yesterday would answer the questions of today.  And where, and who, are the great men of today to respond to these questions?

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