One-hundred and 50 years ago this summer, a still-young nation known as the United States of America faced its greatest challenge. Armies of brothers dressed in blue and gray clashed in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.
More than just the outcome of a battle hung in the balance. So did our form of government. Would the Founding Fathers’ great experiment prove to be a failure?
The fact that our Founders were brilliant men is beyond debate, but they were not perfect. Once the Revolutionary War was won, they needed to form a government. But what type?
During the war, the Founders drafted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, designed to loosely bind the states together and ensure peace and harmony among them after the war. It was finally ratified by the states in 1781 and became the law of the land.
When the war ended in 1783, the Articles of Confederation were the contract by which the states cooperated, but the governing body it created had very little power. The articles soon proved to be insufficient to hold the union together.
In 1787, a new Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia to revise the document and address its shortcomings. Instead, the delegates decided to begin anew, to form a national government that would, from the start, address the issues the Articles of Confederation didn’t, as well as any other problems they could foresee.
It was a risky endeavor that went well beyond the mission with which their states had charged them. They knew the weaknesses of the Articles and did their best to tackle them in what became the Constitution of the United States.
More than that, they had the foresight to recognize that nothing they could come up with would be flawless. So they created a mechanism by which the document could be amended to address situations as they arose.
They knew that perfection was reserved for God, so they did not strive for that. In the preamble to the Constitution, they stated clearly that their objective was to “form a more perfect union.” In that document, they moved further toward perfection than any government had before or since.
Not everyone was happy with the Constitution. In fact, no one was completely happy with it. Rhode Island, for example, refused to send a representative to the convention. Still, the state had the wisdom to see that the convention had addressed the problems in the Articles of Confederation and created a government with which they could all live and flourish.
Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most respected member of the Constitutional Convention, wasn’t completely satisfied either, but he helped steer the convention to approve the Constitution so it could be sent to the states for ratification. He knew it was the best that they as human beings could do.
“There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve,” Franklin said, “but I am not sure I shall never approve them. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection is it does, and I think it will astonish our enemies.”
It did. It was sent to the states for their approval, and of course it was approved. On March 4, 1789, the government created by the Constitution came into existence. It has been working ever since.
The Founding Fathers had successfully identified and addressed the problems in the Articles of Confederation and had moved the U.S. government closer to perfection.
It took a bloody and protracted civil war to really test it, however. Nothing less than our Constitution was on the line in July 1863. It survived, but many more challenges lie ahead.
The task remains uncompleted today. It remains for us — and for those who will come after us — to make it more perfect still.
Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).