The U.S. Constitution is one of the world’s most enduring symbols of democracy. It is also the oldest, and shortest, written constitution of the modern era still in existence. Its writing was by no means inevitable, however. In many ways, the Constitution was both the culmination of American (and British) political thought about government power as well as a blueprint for the future.
It is tempting to think of the framers of the Constitution as a group of like-minded men aligned in their lofty thinking regarding rights and freedoms. This assumption makes it hard to oppose constitutional principles in modern-day politics because people admire the longevity of the Constitution and like to consider its ideals above petty partisan politics. However, the Constitution was designed largely out of necessity following the failure of the first revolutionary government, and it featured a series of pragmatic compromises among its disparate stakeholders. While addressing an audience of about 600 at the newly constructed Corinthian Hall, Frederick Douglass, an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, acknowledged that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “brave” and “great” men, and that the way they wanted the Republic to appear was in the right spirit. But, he said, speaking more than a decade before slavery was ended nationally, a lot of work still needed to be done so that all citizens could enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is therefore quite appropriate that more than 225 years later the U.S. government still requires compromise to function properly.
How did the Constitution come to be written? What compromises were needed to ensure the ratification that made it into law? This chapter addresses these questions and also describes why the Constitution remains a living, changing document.