Holiday History: Independence Day and the Constitution

U.S. Constitution

In 1776, 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, which America celebrates every July 4. Eleven years later, six of those men also signed a founding document that is in some ways even more important: the United States Constitution.

What made these six decide that signing the second was as important as the first? What led us from this declaration of individual and collective rights to the constitutional republic we have today?

The words of the Declaration are legendary—for good reason. First, there is the rationale for independence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”

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That is followed by some of the most stirring words outside scripture: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet, when the Declaration was approved by the Continental Congress, the situation for the former colonies was dire. The summer of 1776 saw British troops destroy all the American military positions under General George Washington in and around New York.

The Continental Congress had no good mechanism to raise funds for the troops, which meant they were chronically underfunded and undersupplied—a source of constant concern for Washington.

The Americans were able to keep fighting and eventually to win in part by the efforts of Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris, one of the six who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution. As the most prominent financier of the revolutionary era, he repeatedly found ways to keep the fight going.

After the war ended, the United States failed to thrive under the Articles of Confederation—and many felt they were not being any more fairly represented than they were before independence.

So, in the balmy summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, the Constitutional Convention commenced. It produced a remarkable, if flawed, document. It was the first time an enduring attempt was made in writing to provide such a structure for the government. It also allowed ways to amend the Constitution, to address those flaws and adjust for changing circumstances.

It is often said that we live in a democracy. While there are some democratic elements to our system, true democracy is rare: some town halls in small communities, perhaps, or maybe recall votes on elected officials in some states would come closest.

We actually live in a republic. At the local level, you vote for someone to represent you on a city council or some governing board in a county, and perhaps the mayor. You entrust them to make the best decisions overall.

That becomes multiplied when we advance to statewide or federal offices.

We say we live in a constitutional republic because there is an overarching Constitution that is not easy to change—in contrast with some nations that are equally republics, but whose system is based on laws that a legislative body can readily change.

Interestingly, the ability to amend our Constitution has made things more democratic over time. There was the expansion of the vote to African Americans. There was the change to direct election of United States senators (prior to 1913, state legislatures elected senators). There was the expansion of the vote to women.

Other than Robert Morris, the men who signed both documents are Roger Sherman of Connecticut; George Read of Delaware; and George Clymer, James Wilson, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.

The others were also very important and influential, but Franklin stands above the rest. While he wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac and “discovered” electricity, he was much more than that: a leading scientist, intellectual, and diplomat. He had a strong influence over both the Declaration and the Constitution.

From the start, Franklin knew that our form of government came with both blessings and obligations. He summed those up well when, upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, he responded to those asking what kind of government the delegates had created: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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Thanks for the refresh!