In 1777, on November 15, the Articles of Confederation, our nation’s first written constitution (which proved to be too weak), was adopted by the Congress. It was not ratified by the states until near the end of the war, but it served as the procedure for governing throughout the war. On March 2, 1781–the day after the Articles of Confederation were ratified–the Continental Congress became known as the Confederation of Congress, and the confederacy claimed the title “the United States of America.”*
On May 14 of 1787, a few statesmen began to assemble in Philadelphia to assess the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Their meetings soon became a convention for framing a new constitution. On May 25, 1787, George Washington was elected president of the Constitutional Convention. The general outline proposed for the new constitution was presented by Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia. The outline came from consultation with seven men, among whom James Madison was prominent.
Their work, spanning almost five months, was an ordeal that required attention to tedious debate and late-hour committee responsibilities with the added discomforts of hot, humid weather and longings for home. Washington himself, disagreeing with one of the delegates, cautioned that regardless of whether or not the states would adopt a new constitution, popular fallacies must be avoided: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.”** Because it was conducted in secret, the public was unaware that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were on the verge of failure. When opinions came to an impasse during the Constitutional Convention, Franklin called the delegates to their knees in prayer.
“In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered… I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men. Can an empire rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.” The practice of prayer continues today when a session of the United States Senate or House convenes.
The Committee of Style and Arrangements, elected by the Constitutional Congress, proceeded to codify what had started out on May 28 as a list of fifteen resolutions presented four months earlier by Edmund Randolph. Twenty-three resolutions for the Constitution emerged from their debate. Rearranging them for orderly reading, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania put them together as the Constitution. It contained seven articles with short subsections and a preamble that starts with the sovereigns under God, “We the People.“
*Articles of Confederation, Article 1.
**Harry Atwood, The Constitution Explained, 4th ed. (Merrimac, MA: Destiny Publishers, 1992), 4.
~ David Norris