About this time 221 years ago, 42 delegates gathered behind locked, guarded doors to complete a document they spent four months creating: The U.S. Constitution. They had convened, under rule of secrecy, to hammer out a framework for a new government, and evidence shows they realized the importance of the work at hand.
|Click on the picture for a larger view.|
|CAN YOU SPOT THE DIFFERENCES? Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River is considered historically inaccurate due to the artist’s dramatization of the event. Tribune artist Gabriel Utasi has modernized the artwork shown here by changing four details.|
Framer George Mason wrote in a letter that the delegates’ efforts would affect “millions unborn.” George Washington called the Constitution “little short of a miracle.”
Today, Americans are still recognizing the document’s importance with Constitution Day, Sept. 17, the day in 1787 when the document was signed and the convention adjourned. The occasion is often surrounded by a week of activities centered on American history and civics, especially for schoolchildren.
It’s a good reminder for the rest of us to stay up to snuff on our knowledge of American government.
According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a nonprofit civics education organization, familiarity with the nation’s civic history is essential to developing future leaders.
In 2005, the group surveyed 14,000 college students on history, government, international relations and the economy, and the results were nothing to boast about: The average college senior failed all four subjects. Results from another quiz, posted online by ConstitutionFacts.com, show that quiz-takers age 51 and older did better than all other age groups.
With results like those, the institute wonders if the next generation of Americans will know enough about the country’s founding principles to maintain liberty.
When the Constitution was signed, the nation’s population was 4 million. Today, it’s more than 300 million.
Philadelphia was the largest, most modern city of the day. It had a population of 40,000 people, plus 7,000 street lamps, 33 churches, 10 newspapers and a university.
The oldest delegate to sign the Constitution was Benjamin Franklin, 81; the youngest was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, 26.
Of the Founding Fathers who became presidents, only George Washington did not attend college.
Originally, the Senate proposed that the president be addressed as “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of their Liberties.” The House and Senate compromised and came up with the term we still use: “President of the United States.”
James Madison was the only one of 55 delegates to attend every meeting of the four-month-long Constitutional Convention. The detailed journal that he kept was purchased by the government in 1837 and published in 1840.
Since 1952, the Constitution has been on display in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. The four parchment pages are displayed in protective glass and titanium cases containing argon gas. Inside, the climate is 67 degrees with a relative humidity of 40 percent.
1. What was the nation’s first “Constitution”?
a. The Federalist Papers
b. The Mayflower Compact
c. The Articles of Confederation
d. The Great Compromise
Answer: (c) The Articles of Confederation, drafted during the Revolutionary War, formed a “league of friendship” among the states and favored states’ rights over a strong central government.
2. Why were the Articles of Confederation changed?
a. to declare an end to war with England
b. to raise tariffs so the colonies could rebuild after the Revolutionary War
c. to form a stronger government
d. to make it easier to trade with other countries after breaking ties with England.
Answer: (c) Political leaders of the time met to revise the Articles, but soon realized they needed to be scrapped in favor of a new plan for government. The resulting U.S. Constitution has survived 221 years with only 27 changes and has been used as a model for constitutions worldwide.
3. Where was the Constitution drafted and signed?
a. The White House
b. Independence Hall
c. The Virginia Statehouse
d. Congressional Hall
Answer: (b) Delegates from each state spent four months framing the Constitution behind locked, guarded doors in the old Pennsylvania Statehouse, now known as Independence Hall, in Philadelphia.
4. Who is known as the “Father of the Constitution”?
Answer: (c) Madison drafted the Virginia state Constitution, called the the Virginia Plan, at age 25; that document became a model for the U.S. Constitution. The father of one of the most important and enduring legal documents in modern history never earned a law degree.
5. Who didn’t sign the constitution?
a. Thomas Jefferson
b. George Washington
c. John Adams
d. Benjamin Franklin
Answer: (a) and (c) Jefferson was in France, and Adams was in Britain; both were serving as U.S. ambassadors.
6. When it came time for the states to ratify the Constitution, what was the main sticking point?
a. It did not specifically outline individual rights and freedoms.
b. It gave states far less power than the federal government.
c. Some believed it allowed for the executive branch to become a tyranny.
d. It did not provide for a Congress made up of representatives of the people.
Answer: (a) Many of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were bitterly disappointed by the document’s failure to spell out the rights of citizens. The first 10 Amendments, which guarantee basic individual rights, were ratified and added to the constitution in 1791, forming the Bill of Rights.
7. How many states were there when the Constitution was written?
Answer: (b) Under the Articles of Confederation, the original 13 colonies became 13 states; nine were required to ratify the Constitution.
8. The opening paragraph of the Constitution is called:
a. The Introduction
b. The Preliminary Article
c. Article I
d. The Preamble
Answer: (d) It’s just 52 words and begins “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union ...”
9. How many Articles does the constitution contain?
Answer: (a) The Constitution laid out instructions for the legislative, executive and judicial branches; addressed state’s rights and federal responsibilities; and detailed the amendment and ratification processes in just four pages. It’s among the most concise governing documents known to exist.
10. What’s the link between the Constitution and the Thanksgiving holiday?
Answer: President George Washington established the holiday Nov. 26, 1789, as a means of giving thanks for the new Constitution, which, he wrote in a letter to a friend, was “little short of a miracle.”