We The People – The Story of Our Constitution, by Lynne Cheney, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, © 2008, ISBN: 13-978-1-4169-5418-7, 30 pp, $17.99, $21 Can.
Review by Del
“The happy union of these states is a wonder; their
Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of liberty throughout the world.”
Cheney observes that in 1787, our young country was
in turmoil. The central government was unable to pay off debts, there was armed
insurrection in Massachusetts, and foreign governments were taking advantage of our
weakness. The question of the hour, James Madison wrote, was “whether the American
experiment was to be a blessing to the world or to blast forever the hopes which the
republican cause had inspired.”
The story of our founding document is a tale of
persistence, as delegates kept on despite obstacles that at times made their task
seem impossible. It is a tale of creativity, with the delegates providing a framework
for a government entirely new. History might have gone otherwise but for the
framers’ genius, and we should be grateful for James Madison, George Washington,
Benjamin Franklin, and the others gathered in Philadelphia.
“The citizens of America . . . are from this period
to be considered as the actors on a most conspicuous theater, which seems to be
peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and
felicity.” –George Washington
Astride his favorite horse, Nelson, on October 19,
1781, General George Washington looked on as thousands of British soldiers marched
out of Yorktown, Virginia, to lay down their arms. Americans, with help from France,
had just won the battle that would end the Revolutionary War. For the British, this loss was a shock.
Theirs was the mightiest army in the world, and they had thought it impossible that
the Americans would defeat them.
For the citizens of our country, living on a vast and
bountiful continent, it seemed like a new age was dawning. A free and independent
America would surely prosper and become a great and mighty nation.
“I am mortified beyond expression when I view the
clouds which have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any
country.” –George Washington
America had adopted rules for governing called the
Articles of Confederation. They didn’t work very well and trouble became apparent
over the next several years. The states printed their own money. They refused to pay
off the debts from the Revolutionary War. Other countries were taking advantage of
the weakness of the United States. The British refused to move out of military posts
they were supposed to give up after the Revolutionary War. Massachusetts' farmers
couldn’t pay their debts, rose up against the government and tried to seize a
building in Springfield where guns and ammunition were kept. The militia fired upon
them. Americans were killing Americans.
“The great fabric to be raised would be more stable
and durable if it should rest on the solid foundation of the people themselves.”
In 1787, delegates from twelve states traveled to a
convention in Philadelphia to figure out a better plan for governing the country.
Madison, the first to arrive, believed the current government was near collapse. In
his room at a Philadelphia boardinghouse, Madison, a small man of great learning,
labored over a plan to present to the convention. His boldest idea was that the
nation’s government start with the people. Rather than have the state legislatures
choose the members of Congress, Madison proposed that the people have a direct say in
who represented them.
George Washington hated to leave his beloved home at
Mount Vernon, but was worried with thirteen states all pulling in different
directions, which he felt could bring ruin upon America. The people of Philadelphia
remembered how this tall, dignified man had persisted in the darkest hours of the
Revolution, when it had seemed impossible that America would win her war for
independence. They remembered how he had given up power after the war when some had
wanted to make him a king. All across America he was loved and respected. When he
arrived in Philadelphia on May 13, the bells rang out to celebrate his arrival and
joyful crowds gathered to greet him. With him at the convention, Americans were more
likely to look favorably upon what the delegates decided.
“To the man who unites all hearts.” –A
popular toast of the time, offered to honor George Washington.
James Madison was presenting his ideas to his fellow
Virginians while waiting for a quorum of 29 men to arrive eleven days after the
proposed starting date. On May 29, one of the Virginia representatives proposed
Madison’s plan to the assembled delegates. Governor Edmund Randolph described a
government of three branches: Legislative or the Congress; Judicial or the courts;
and a national executive. The legislative branch would have two parts or houses, with
the people of each state electing the members of the first house. Although some
delegates felt the people couldn’t be trusted to choose their representatives, most
disagreed. They thought that the place for government to begin was with the people.
“The national legislative powers ought to flow
immediately from the people.” –James Wilson, Delegate from Pennsylvania
The Articles of Confederation gave each state one
vote. The Virginia Plan gave more representatives and more votes to states with more
people. The small states believed that their interests would be trampled upon.
“We would soon submit to a foreign power than
submit to be deprived of an equality of suffrage.” –John Dickinson, Delegate from
The oldest delegate was inventor and statesman
Benjamin Franklin. At 81, he was carried in a sedan chair from his home to the
convention. Although he commanded great respect, he could not get the quarreling
delegates to put their anger aside as they fought through the sweltering month of
June. Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed that in one house of the legislature,
states be represented according to size and in the other, the Senate, each state have
an equal number of votes. But the idea
went nowhere. Dr. Franklin suggested that the delegates send for a chaplain to lead
them in prayer. The leaders of the Revolution had sought God’s help, he said, and
so should those who were trying to build a new nation.
“How has it happened . . . that we have not
hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our
understandings?” –Benjamin Franklin, Delegate from Pennsylvania
The delegates did not call for a chaplain. But as the
Fourth of July neared, they stopped arguing long enough to choose a committee which
came up with a compromise similar to the one Sherman proposed. While the members of
the committee were at work, other delegates took a break. George Washington went
up to one Jane Moore’s in the vicinity of Valley Forge to get trout.” –George
On September 17, after the final draft of the
Constitution was read aloud, Benjamin Franklin addressed the convention. He told the
delegates that there were parts of the document with which he did not agree, but that
over a long life he had learned he was not always right. On the whole, he said, the
Constitution was astonishingly good, and he hoped that other delegates who had doubts
would join him in signing it. Several refused. George Washington, as president of the
convention, was the first to put his name to the Constitution, then thirty-seven
others followed, state by state. As the last delegate signed the document, Dr.
Franklin looked at the sun painted on the back of George Washington’s chair and saw
in it a sign of a new beginning for America.
“… at length I have the happiness to know that it
is a rising and not a setting sun.” –Benjamin Franklin
By July 4, 1788, the people of ten states, the
required three-fourths majority, had, after sometimes fierce debate, ratified the
Constitution which made it the supreme law of the country. It was time for
celebration. In Philadelphia, after early morning bells and a cannon salute, crowds
lined the streets to watch high-stepping horses lead a parade of flags, bands and
floats. Citizens of every occupation marched, weavers followed by chair makers,
bricklayers, and gilders; book binders by coppersmiths and clergymen. At the end of
the parade came feasting and an oration. “Happy country!” proclaimed convention
delegate James Wilson. “May thy happiness be perpetual!”
“ ‘Tis done! We have become a nation.”
–Benjamin Rush, Citizen of Pennsylvania—and of the United States of America
The delegates recognized that no document is perfect
and so they included ways of amending it. The first ten amendments, called the Bill
of Rights, were passed by two thirds of the Congress in 1789, and ratified by three
fourths of the states in 1791, which safeguarded the freedoms of speech, religion and
the press. Amendments after the Civil War did away with slavery and provided that the
right to vote will not be restricted on account of race. In 1920, the Constitution
was amended to recognize the right of women to vote.
Lynne Cheney, an educator and senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, provides a history lesson for parents and their children. This book puts the struggles and the founding of our nation and constitution in perspective. She recognizes that there were Americans who looked at the Constitution and did not see themselves. Today, “We The People” includes all of us working together, to make our great country greater still.