May 25 marks the official convening of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. At a time when we again are hearing calls–from both sides of the political spectrum–for another constitutional convention, an examination of the first one holds some lessons that we would do well to heed if we don’t want to lose any more freedoms than we’ve already lost.
Although delegates from several states had already gathered before May 25, 1787, they had had no quorum and therefore could not conduct official business until that day. With the quorum achieved, however, they finally began.
Initially called merely to amend the Articles of Confederation, resolving its inherent weaknesses and thereby making a better government (“to create a more perfect Union,” as the preamble of the resulting Constitution stated), the Convention actually discarded the Articles altogether and substituted an entirely new government. This was done, in the case of many states’ delegations, in direct violation of those states’ instructions.
Perhaps one of the finest accounts of the Constitutional Convention is Carl Van Doren’s The Great Rehearsal, in which he stated, “The wisest statesmen, in timing their actions, have to realize that they are guessing in the dark. Though they may gamble gloriously, they still are gamblers, with none of the easy knowledge of the outcome which may make posterity, having that knowledge, wonder how they could have been so apprehensive.”
The Constitution that resulted from the Convention was clearly an improvement over the Articles of Confederation, and the nation was ruled by that document for the next seventy years with little change or threat to freedom. But no delegate at that Convention could have dreamed what their “more perfect Union” has devolved into today. Many of the very things of which the Anti-Federalists (those who opposed ratification of the Constitution that the Convention produced) warned have now come to pass. Van Doren recorded that among the delegates were “a good many who were jealous for the sovereignty of their separate states; some who feared that a stronger federal constitution might create a super-state in which local self-government would be lost. . . .”
How prescient those delegates were! The states today have essentially lost their sovereignty to an all-powerful central government and are mere agents of the national government. Individual freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, which were offered as concessions to the Anti-Federalists in return for their support, are increasingly under attack and threatened with extinction. No doubt, even many of the Federalists (those who advocated ratification) would today abhor what their government has become.
Many people today are calling for another constitutional convention, many of them doing so with the hope that they can somehow restore the original purpose of the Constitution and thereby protect our freedoms. Many others, however, have in mind a more diabolical purpose: to further centralize the government under tyrannical leaders, taking from the people their original freedoms and bringing about a new order that is antithetical to true freedom. Just as the Founding delegates ignored their original instructions and totally revamped their existing government, the delegates to a new convention could do the same, taking our form of government from bad to worse by producing something that is abhorrent to all freedom-loving people.
Who is to say that the delegates would be “the wisest statesmen”? Recent presidential races, especially the current contest, attest to the fact that the opposite would more likely be true. A look at Congress over the last few decades confirms that it is not generally the best statesmen who lead our country.
Interestingly, on May 25, two hundred and seven years after the opening of the Constitutional Convention, a man named Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after a twenty-year exile in the United States. He had been arrested, beaten, interrogated, imprisoned in the infamous Lubyanka Prison and Kazakhstan, and finally exiled for criticizing the totalitarian Stalinist and subsequent communist regimes. In his various writings, which were secreted out of the Soviet prison system and published in the West, he offered not only vivid descriptions of tyranny but also stark warnings to the free peoples of the world about how easily they, too, could lose their freedoms.
If you have never read them, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Cancer Ward (1962), The Gulag Archipeligo (1973), and other Solzhenitsyn works. Read especially his speeches made during his exile in the United States.
Then consider seriously the dangers of holding another constitutional convention. Remind yourself incessantly that the delegates who would attend that new convention would in their thinking, beliefs, and character be nothing like the original Founding Fathers. And the results of their efforts could only be detrimental to the cause of freedom.