Today, September 17, 2009 is Constitution Day, marking the 222nd anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. Given the concerns expressed by the delegates from the various states assembled in the summer of 1787, that they could agree on a framework for a federal government is truly remarkable.
About this remarkable accomplishment, the distinguished historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote in “Postscript: Philadelphia 1787“*
What happened in Philadelphia that summer was the culminating achievement of the Enlightenment in America, if not the world. Fifty-five men agreed on a way of government that has been more successful in almost every way than any other in a thousand years and more. Yes, the members of the Constitutional Convention all had their special interests to protect, among them the interests of slaveholders, not among them the interests of slaves. But they listened to each other. They reasoned together. And what they did was not unreasonable. It worked. It still works.
In his essay, Morgan shows how remarkable this accomplishment was not by the traditional means. He doesn’t commend James Madison for his design, doesn’t praise George Washington for his skill in presiding over the proceedings. He doesn’t detail how they delegates worked out the Great Compromise, creating a bicameral legislature which different means of selection for the representatives in each, to address the concerns of the small and big states . Nor does he elucidate the advantages of the separation of powers.
Instead, he looks to the popular mood that summer in the City of Philadelphia to show just how great were the odds against which the Framers labored. He details the story of woman accused of being a witch to suggest that certain superstitions ran deep in post-Revolutionary America.
While laws against witchcraft had been repealed in 1736, “belief in witchcraft,” Morgan wrote, “could not be repealed. Fear of witchcraft continued, and so did popular methods of detecting and dealing with witches.”
Indeed, the very day James Madison arrived in Philadelphia, a woman named Korbmacher was attacked for being a witch; she “applied to the authorities for protection.” Two months later, on July 10 to be precise, while “America’s great men sat in solemn conclave, working out the compromise that saved the union,” an “ignorant and inhuman mob” kidnapped this poor woman and carried her through the streets where she “was hooted and pelted as she passed along.” She died eight days later.
The juxtaposition of her torment and the drafting of the Constitution leads Morgan to conclude:
. . . the episode did not seem as bizarre to people of the time as it does to us. The year 1787 was less than a century from 1692 [year of Salem witch trials]. It is worth reminding ourselves that Benjamin Franklin once spoke with Cotton Mather. He and the other fifty-four men who labored n the State House that summer may have been working against greater odds that we have realized.
Emphasis added. Theirs really was a remarkable accomplishment. The framework of government they established still functions. As we celebrate the Constitution today, let us remember those great men, the odds they faced and the obstacles they overcame. Let us salute in particular James Madison who designed the document and George who presided over the deliberations, keeping order amidst contentious parties.
Would that we had their like today.