Thoughts on Independence Day

By: Brad Buchanan

Every Independence Day I try to read a good history book, to remind me of the trials and difficulties so many people have endured so that I can sit comfy in my home and write essays about them. This year’s history lesson was from the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis, called “The Quartet: The Second American Revolution.” The quartet were Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Jay. The Second American Revolution, as Ellis sees it, was the Constitutional Convention that took us from being a loose confederation of thirteen colonies to nationhood.

During the Gettysburg Address, when Lincoln said, “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…” he was actually making a political point rather than offering an historical fact. When the Revolution was over, and the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783, thirteen sovereign yet affiliated colonies had declared independence from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was unambiguous: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America…” Note the small “u” in “united States.” We were not yet a nation, and would not be until the Constitutional Convention of 1787, some ten years later.

Most people during the Revolutionary period never traveled more than a thirty-miles from their homes. They did not care about colonies or nations. They were more concerned about varmints eating up their crops. But a small cadre of influential individuals had a nationalistic vision, of pulling the thirteen colonies together under one unified government.

Washington and Hamilton had experienced the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, as their starving, shoeless army shuffled from one place to another, avoiding Britain’s professional troops. Madison was frustrated by the states’ refusal to fulfill the requisitions requested from the Continental government. John Jay was the head of foreign policy for the Continental Congress, but could not speak with one voice due to the diverse foreign policy interests of the colonies. These four men had deeply felt the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation. If the fruits of the Revolution were to be fully realized, a new, national government was absolutely necessary.

The call went out for a Constitutional Convention, slated for the spring of 1787. The first problem that had to be overcome was indifference – there were not enough state delegates to field a quorum, so no business could be done. It is interesting to note that the first problem faced by the constitutional delegates was to simply make people care about creating a new nation. Now we have people yelling at each other in the streets over their emotionally driven political affiliations. How times change.

Once a quorum was achieved, and the delegates could get to work, they soon realized that there were a few intractable issues in the room, such as slavery, that could not even be discussed without imploding the entire convention. There were other contentious issues as well, such as westward expansion and monetary policy. The founders knew there could be no agreement, or even discussion, about these issues if they wanted to pull the colonies into one truly united country. They purposely left these issues to future generations, so they could go on with the delicate business of putting together a national government.

The issue of slavery came to head when the spirit of compromise broke down in the late 1850’s, and it had to be decided by us shooting each other in peach orchards and corn fields — the Civil War. When anyone in a position of political power, on either side of the aisle, says “no compromise” I shudder to think where that might lead.

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention knew they did not have all the answers. They could not solve all the problems in their own day, much less those that might be faced by future generations. The true genius of the document they produced (minus the Bill of Rights which came a bit later), was to give us, their descendants, a structure to continue the political discussion. They did not have the hubris to try to give us all the answers. Their intent was to give us the means by which we could figure out the answers for ourselves, for our own times, with our own distinctive set of problems.

The best way to honor the Founding Fathers, and the hard work they did, is to use the document they gave us to continue the political discussion in a courteous and civilized manner. At the Constitutional Convention, in spite of diverse and sometimes adversarial colonial interests, the Founding Fathers managed to pull the country together into a unified body. Let’s use the document they labored so hard to produce as they intended it to be used, to solve the very real problems we face in this country today, problems which they could never have imagined.