What Is the Constitution?
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
— Preamble to the United States Constitution
On September 17, 1787, delegates signed the Constitution of the United States of America. Yet arriving at a consensus on what the Constitution would be and say was no easy feat.
John Adams described the Constitution as “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.”
Almost four months prior on May 25, the Philadelphia Convention convened with George Washington presiding over the convention. The original intent of this meeting was to revise the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution which had been ratified in 1781. But some delegates had other plans. Alexander Hamilton, for his part, delivered a six-hour speech advocating for a strong central government and an “elective monarch.” After having just fought a war to escape the clutches of the British monarchy, you can imagine that Hamilton’s plan wasn’t well received.
Instead, it was James Madison’s plan that ended up guiding the convention. Madison had written the Virginia state constitution, and his “Virginia Plan” was the blueprint the delegates followed as they drafted the U.S. Constitution. In the subsequent months, delegates juggled multiple personalities, ideas, interests, and convictions as they crafted the document that became the U.S. Constitution.
And what a feat this document is. The Constitution divides government into three separate branches:
- the Legislative Branch, which makes the laws;
- the Executive Branch, which carries out the laws;
- and the Judicial Branch, which interprets the laws.
In addition, the Constitution prescribed a series of checks and balances between these three branches. John Adams described the Constitution as “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.”
Starting in December 1787, the 13 states held specially elected state conventions to ratify the Constitution. Soon afterwards, they ratified the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments which clarified citizens’ and states’ rights.
History would remember this meeting not as the Philadelphia Convention, but as the Constitutional Convention. And we commemorate September 17 as Constitution Day.
Constitution Day: By the Numbers
- 2 — Future Presidents who signed the Constitution (George Washington and James Madison)
- 3 — Branches of the U.S. Government
- 10 — Amendments in the Bill of Rights
- 13 — States which ratified the Constitution (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island)
- 26 — Age of the youngest signer of the Constitution (Jonathan Dayton)
- 27 —Constitutional Amendments, the last of which was ratified on May 7, 1992
- 55 — Delegates at the Constitutional Convention
- 81 — Age of the oldest signer of the Constitution (Benjamin Franklin)
- 1787 — Year in which the Constitutional Convention was held
- 4543 — Words in the Constitution
- 7591 — Words in the Constitution (when you include the 27 amendments)
The Constitution and its Amendments tell the slow, sometimes painful story of America aspiring to live up to its founding ideals.
Constitution Day: Why the Constitution Matters
- The Constitution is about us.
The Constitution isn’t a dusty document that doesn’t apply to us. Our government is, as the preamble indicates, “we the people.” The delegates didn’t allocate power in a monarchy; they charged voters with the power and responsibility to elect Congressmen and Presidents. Jesus calls us to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). In a real sense, the Constitution makes us our own Caesar, and God has charged us with the responsibility of stewarding this responsibility well.
- The Constitution is the standard.
As a nation, we are not governed by the whims of a crowd or majority opinion. Ultimately, all laws and decisions must adhere to the Constitution’s objective standard. The delegates did provide a means for changing the Constitution through Amendments, but that process is necessarily slow.
- The Constitution tells our story.
The Constitution is not a perfect document. When it was written, slavery was an enshrined right, and women didn’t have the right to vote. But the Constitution and its Amendments tell our country’s story. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 15th Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. The Constitution and its Amendments tell the slow, sometimes painful story of America aspiring to live up to its founding ideals.