For most Americans, December 7 is associated with Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941 (“a date which will live in infamy,” according to President Franklin Roosevelt, who would go on to put many thousand Japanese-Americans in internment camps and not see the infamy in that), Japanese fighter pilots and bombers spent ninety minutes killing over 2,400 Americans at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States was not yet an official party to World War II, but the surprise attack from Japan drew the full might of the US into the war.
But there is another event, often overlooked, that occurred over 150 years before Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. On December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the United States Constitution. Delaware had thirty delegates at their state’s Constitutional Convention. All thirty voted to ratify the Constitution, and American government as we know it was born.
Just over six months later, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution and thus officially created the representative republic conceived in the document. Since 1787, the Constitution has been debated, amended, defended, and attacked. Through it all, however, it has remained the most important governmental document and a ubiquitous source of conversation.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
In the 233 years since Delaware led the way, the Constitution has been put through the wringer. Almost immediately, the Bill of Rights was added, ostensibly guaranteeing Americans freedom from an overreaching government. Some of the tweaks to the Constitution were great. For instance, freeing slaves with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 righted an embarrassing and shameful wrong. The Nineteenth Amendment (1920), granted women the right to vote that had nonsensically been denied to them for so long.
There have been some negatives, too. The original language of Article I stated that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. On the plus side, this abhorrent “compromise” was removed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol in the United States and was an abject failure. At least we had the good sense to repeal that one fourteen years later.
Since it’s ratification, the Constitution has been a catalyst for progress in this country. Great legislative debates have occurred because of it. Marches and protests have stemmed from it. A war was even fought to protect it. But on the whole, the United States and its grand governmental experiment has been a success. The Founding Fathers did not want democracy. Pure democracy caused headaches for each nation that tried it. “Nope. Not for us,” Thomas Jefferson probably said.
The Founding Fathers wanted something new. They wanted a representative republic. Our representative republic is a Frankengovernment composed of the best parts of several government systems. A confederation of states with their own laws and customs. A democracy by which people elect their representatives. An open form of government where anyone can grow up to be a politician. A healthy balance of distrust of government. And the electoral college.
From its conception, the electoral college has been controversial. However, it serves an important purpose. The electoral college forces the voices of many different American ecosystems to have an equal voice. Urban centers, while diverse in many ways, are not economically all that diverse as far as revenue streams. For instance, the economic considerations of Los Angeles, while broad, are not the same as economic considerations of Des Moines. Without the electoral college, non-urban voting centers would likely be ignored because the vote would almost always be decided by the twenty or so largest cities in the country. Some will say the electoral college is anti-democratic, and it is. It is anti-democratic because we do not live in a democracy and were never intended to live in a democracy.
But I digress. I could do a whole post on defending the electoral college, but maybe some other time. The point is that the Constitution is a great document. Even the wrongs it contained were corrected by the very mechanisms provided for in the text. We did not like the idea of a president being in office forever, so the Twenty-Second Amendment limited their service to two four-year terms.
My final point is this: For better or worse, the Constitution has worked, so far. There have not been many nations throughout the course of history who can change the fundamentals of government with constitutional processes like we can. It maintains peace. It provokes thought. It balances the might of the government and the populace. We as a nation must protect and defend this document against incursions from within and without the country. And we can thank Delaware for that responsibility. Delaware led the way, and 233 years later, we’re still talking about it.