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Letter: People’s Role In Democracy

— To the Editor:

Sept. 17 inaugurates Constitution Week; that document, adopted 225 years ago in 1787, established our federal republic and has been the model for the constitutions of many other nations. In that undertaking, Alexandrian George Washington was again the indispensable man. The conference he hosted at Mt. Vernon in 1785 set an example of how states could cooperate for their mutual benefit. (Maryland’s boundary was the high water line of the Potomac on the Virginia side; Virginians got unlimited fishing rights on the river.) Delegates from five states met the following year at Annapolis for more successful discussions and problem-solving; that meeting was followed by the 1787 Constitutional Convention, whose purpose was to fix problems resulting from weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. Washington was unanimously elected president of the Convention. The 55 delegates soon realized that they would have to make a clean break from that governing document, so, meeting in total secrecy from May to September, started the world's first peaceful revolution as they overthrew their previous form of government.

Despite Washington’s strong urging, the adoption of the Constitution was not easy. States were reluctant to give up even the specifically enumerated powers. Having just fought against a strong government which had imposed its will from afar, they wanted to protect their freedoms by limiting the powers of any central government, even one on this continent. One of Washington's best friends and nearest neighbor, George Mason, who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights which served as the model for the Bill of Rights, refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked written specific protections for individual rights and allowed slavery to continue for 20 years. Note: The influence of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which provided for the separation of church and state can be seen in the First Amendment. Jefferson, our minister to France, was not at the Convention, but exchanged letters with friends in Philadelphia during the debates. Other prominent Virginians like Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph opposed the Constitution in its original form, and the debate in the General Assembly was extended and lively until it was approved, 89-79. Thus Virginia was the 10th state, not the first (Delaware), to adopt it. Because Virginia was by far the largest, wealthiest, and most important state and located in the middle of the Atlantic coastal states, her ratification was essential to the success of the effort. In the end, the other states followed Virginia’s example. Rhode Island, which had not sent delegates to the Convention, was the last to ratify, in 1790, after Washington had been President for more than a year.

All the states ratified the Constitution with provisions that they could withdraw if staying in the union was against their interests and contingent upon approval of a written Bill of Rights, which was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791. Virginian James Madison has been called the "Father of the Constitution", a title earned by his prominent participation in the Philadelphia debates, his role as unofficial secretary of the Convention, and his tireless efforts in ensuring the adoption of the Constitution by the various states. He and John Blair, later an associate Supreme Court justice, were the two Virginia signers.

The Constitution established a federal republic, not a democracy. An important difference is that in a democracy, the majority rules absolutely. However, our Constitution protects the rights of the minority from the more powerful majority. Our federal republic has a representative form of government; our elected representatives, not the people directly, pass the laws. However, there are limits on their powers. They cannot abridge our individual freedoms and rights protected under the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, nor may they pass laws beyond the limits imposed by the Constitution. Also, because of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, the laws they pass must be signed by the President in order to become law. People may challenge those laws in court if they believe their rights have been violated. The laws apply to all equally; the most powerful are subject to the same laws as the least. Because the laws are written, we know what they are. This is what the signers intended; part of today‘s political debates is how elastic the Constitution’s provisions should be.

We can appropriately celebrate Constitution Week by rereading that document, flying the American and Virginia flags and becoming informed voters. In November, we will fill lots of offices at the national, state and local levels and decide about proposed amendments to our Virginia Constitution. We the People must play an active role to ensure that we make thoughtful choices, mindful of their effects now and in the future.

Ellen Latane Tabb

Alexandria