Happy Independence Day, friends! In honor of our nation’s big holiday, I thought I’d pull together some of the fun facts that you probably didn’t know about the U.S. Constitution. Citizens, today’s a very good day to wise up about our most important national document.
1. The U.S. Constitution was actually signed on September 17th, 1787. Today marks the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Just thought I’d set that record straight right off the bat.
2. One can claim that George Washington was NOT our nation’s first President. One can easily claim that the honor went to John Hanson, who, in 1781, was appointed “President of the U.S. in Congress Assembled.” As our first President, Mr. Hanson served a one-year term, and his greatest accomplishment may have been to approve the Great Seal of the United States, which is still used today. He acquired this position under our little-known Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first–temporary–constitution, which bridged the gap between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution we know now. Under this interim document (1781-1787), states had full autonomy over their affairs, and Federal powers and responsibilities were limited to foreign policy. There was no uniform power to create consistent currency, collect taxes, or raise an army. Seems to me a lot of states kinda wish we could return to this document.
3. Neither Thomas Jefferson nor John Adams signed the final Constitution. They were serving at the time as U.S. ministers to France and Great Britain, respectively.
4. Only two U.S. presidents signed the Constitution: George Washington and James Madison. Madison was also the only delegate to attend every single meeting of the Constitutional Convention.
5. Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”), declined to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention because he “smelled a rat.”
6. The first national Thanksgiving Day was declared on November 26, 1789 by George Washington, not to give thanks for the earth’s bounty, but to show gratitude for the nation’s new Constitution!
7. The word “democracy” doesn’t appear at all in the Constitution (or the Declaration, for that matter). That’s because our founders created a Republic–not a democracy. Confused? Think about it: you pledge allegiance to a Republic. Still not sure about this? Then check out Article IV, Section 4: The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…”The difference between these forms of government is not insignificant: Democracy: majority rules, and there is no assured protections for the rights or needs of any minority. One might also call this “mob rules.” Republic: Representative leadership, based on the constitutional rule of law, which assures that the right of all citizens are protected. (I sure prefer a Constitutional Republic. It’d be great if we started acting like that’s what we really have.)
8. Ben Franklin was in extremely poor health at the time of signing. His chair was carried into the convention hall by four prisoners from Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail. And as an addendum to #7, it’s said that as he left the signing, a woman on the street asked him what kind of government had been formed, to which he replied, “A Republic, ma’am. If you can keep it.”
9. The articles ratified in the original Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights — an important issue to several delegates who refused to sign without them. The work continued, however, and the Bill of Rights, which represents the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, was ratified by states by December, 1791.
10. Perhaps the most contentiously debated issue was slavery. Forty percent of the nation’s population were slaves (60 percent in southern states), and these men, women and children were considered property. While it was agreed that slaves had no right to vote, several northern delegates, opposed to slavery, wished to see one vote for every free man. Southerners in support of slavery wished to allow free men to vote on behalf of their slaves as well–giving them a disproportionate advantage in both representation and the electoral college. Beyond voting privileges, however, the “worth” of each slave could impact taxation. The “Three-Fifths Compromise” (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) was their (crazy) answer:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
FUN BONUS!Amendments to the Constitution require support from two-thirds of Congress, as well as three-fourths of the states. Those are tough odds. Since ratification of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has only changed 17 times, even though there have been more than 10,000 proposed amendments to the Constitution. Here are a couple of my favorites, for either their wackiness or longevity in public discourse:
- 1876: Called for the abolition of the U.S. Senate.
- 1893: Recommended that the nation be renamed “United State of the Earth.”
- 1894: Recognized God and Jesus Christ as the supreme authorities in human affairs.
- 1936: Called for a national vote to approve all acts of war.
IMO, every U.S. citizen ought to have a copy of the Constitution at home in their reference collection–and even read it. Heck there’s an app for that, too, so keep it on your smartphone and impress your friends at cocktail parties.
We’ve got a pocket edition released by www.constitutionfacts.org (it’s also the source of several of today’s fun facts). It’s free (plus $3.00 S&H). And even if you don’t need to order a copy, I’d encourage you to swing by and play their “Constitution I.Q.” quiz.
Happy Fourth of July!