On Sept. 17 we celebrated Citizenship Day which opens Constitution Week. On Sept. 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention, whose president was George Washington, adopted the document that established our national government as a federal republic (Article IV, Section IV). It is the oldest written constitution still in active use.
That Philadelphia meeting illegally changed its purpose. The delegates were empowered only to revise the Articles of Confederation to meet additional needs that had become apparent since its 1781 adoption. Representatives, including Washington and Madison, realized their original charge was impossible; a new form of government was required. The adoption of our Constitution constituted the first peaceful overthrow of an existing government. Washington, who had earlier led our country in a successful war to overthrow British rule, led another remarkable revolution.
One of the most important issues facing the delegates was how to allocate sovereignty between the states (independent countries) and a new national government. Most of the delegates wanted to empower the federal government to raise revenue whose uses would benefit all the states (provide national defense, promote domestic tranquility and the general welfare via cross-border internal improvements, etc.). Their solution was shared sovereignty with only specified and limited responsibilities allocated to the national government. States would remain the primary unit of government.
The arrangement of an executive (king), bicameral legislature and judiciary was familiar, but because the king and his representatives, Parliament and judges had trampled on the people’s rights, fixing that problem was a major concern. The Constitution’s solution was a separation of powers with checks and balances so no branch would be able to wrest control.
Because their deliberations were illegal, delegates were pledged to secrecy. Doors and windows were shut despite the summer’s heat, and remarkably, there were no leaks of the proceedings. When the delegates emerged at the Convention’s conclusion, a woman reportedly asked Franklin “What form of government have you given us?” He replied “A republic, madam, if you can keep it!” That remains our challenge.
The Constitution established a broad framework for our government but omitted important details such as the title of the executive. That point led to much discussion: the title needed to command respect equal to that of “king” but be suitable for a republic. Alexandria’s mayor, Dennis Ramsay, is believed to be the first official to address Washington as “Mr. President”; he did so at Wise’s Tavern (northeast corner of Fairfax and Cameron St.), site of the city’s farewell as Washington prepared to leave for his inauguration in New York City.
We are also greatly indebted to Alexandrian George Mason who wrote the first Virginia Constitution (which lasted to 1971), a model for our national one. Mason refused to sign and actively opposed the adoption of the Constitution because it did not end slavery or include a Bill of Rights – and other reasons. He therefore earned Washington’s lasting ire. His contributions have been largely omitted by historians who have championed Madison, Washington’s continuing close collaborator, as Father of the Constitution.
Ellen Latane Tabb