On this day in 1787, delegates to the Federal Convention completed their work (which began in May) and voted to approve a new Constitution, which was submitted to the states for ratification (which occurred on June 21, 1788). Now the oldest written national constitution in the world, the British statesman William Gladstone described it as “the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect.” It was also on this day that Benjamin Franklin, who by then was in his 80s and seldom participated in the constitutional debates, delivered a wise and moving speech in which he said this:
I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one anothers throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.
It is hard to overstate the importance of, and the sheer brilliance and prescience of, the American Constitution. It established the world’s first stable democratic government and provided the governing framework for the most powerful and benevolent nation in human history. The product above all of 36-year-old James Madison, an unparalleled master of political and constitutional theory, the Constitution also resulted in the Federalist Papers–85 essays written between October 1787 and May 1788 by Alexander Hamilton (author of 51 of the essays), Madison (author of 29), and John Jay (author of five)–which explain the whole theory of constitutional government and which helped pave the way for ratification.
George W. Carey and James McClellan, in their fine introduction to The Federalist, write that this collection of essays, hastily written by three politicians in the midst of a political struggle, makes the Federalist Papers “a unique document, unparalleled in the literature of the Western political tradition.”
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