Because Sept. 17, Citizenship Day, inaugurates Constitution Week (17-23), let’s consider why the Founding Fathers illegally abolished the Articles of Confederation, our first form of government, for a new one. The Potomac River at Alexandria and our resident problem solver, George Washington, played a major role in propelling this result.
Maryland and Virginia had many differences about fishing and navigation rights on the Potomac, where there were many small and large boats and ocean-going vessels. George Washington and others decided delegates had to come to some agreement to end the chaos. The 1785 Mount Vernon Conference established the still observed boundaries between VA and MD, MD owns the river, and Virginians have unimpeded fishing and navigation access. That successful meeting led to another in Annapolis the next year with delegates from states bordering the Bay, and solved additional issues.
That successful meeting prompted a Philadelphia meeting which became the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Although authorized only to fix the problems resulting from the inadequacies of the Articles, the delegates immediately decided a new form of government was necessary. With George Washington as president, shutting the doors and windows, they held secret deliberations. There were no leaks.
On Sept. 17, 39 men signed the Constitution, including Virginians John Blair and James Madison, Jr. Edmund Pendleton and George Mason refused. Mason wrote 16 objections, including to the continuation of slavery and the absence of a Bill of Rights. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts also refused to sign.
What form of government did our Constitution provide? Not a democracy, as elected officials at every level of government and pundits mistakenly declare. That word does not appear in our Constitution. Article IV, Section 4 notes “a Republican Form of Government, …”
What is a republic? What is a democracy? In both, power resides in the people. However, a republic provides important differences and protections. In a democracy, the majority rules — with no constraints; a democracy might be subverted by mob rule. In a republic, the rights of the minority are protected. A republic insists on the rule of law Also, citizens elect representatives to enact laws/ordinances; they do not make them directly, as in a democracy.
A successful republic depends on an informed and responsible citizenry watchful of what their representatives do, and removes them as needed. Because doing so is a demanding challenge, Franklin reportedly answered the woman asking what form of government had just been adopted “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
In our federal republic, the Constitution allocates various specific responsibilities and authority to the national government and reserves the rest to the states and citizens. Its articles specify the duties of the Congress, President and Judiciary. Citizens’ individual rights are protected by the Bill of Rights, modeled on Alexandrian George Mason’s 1776 VA Declaration of Rights.
Hooray for our Potomac River with its fishing, boats, ships, the contributions of our two Georges, the Constitution on its 231st birthday, Sept. 17, and our federal republic.
Ellen Latane Tabb