In 1787, on May 14, 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 the most prominent. Their work, spanning almost five months, was an ordeal that required attention to tedious debate, late-hour committee responsibilities, uncomfortable weather, and longing 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.”*
When opinions came to an impasse during the Constitutional Convention, Franklin called the delegates to their knees in prayer. The practice of prayer when a United States Senate or House session convenes continues today.
The Northwest Ordinance passed earlier by the Continental Congress was very helpful as the new constitution was drafted. It specified the requirements of territories seeking statehood. The ordinance declared: “The fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws, and constitutions are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments, which forever hereafter shall be formed in the said territory: to provide also for the establishment of States, and permanent government therein, and for their admission to a share in the federal councils on an equal footing with the original States, at as early periods as may be consistent with the general interest.”**
Also known as the Freedom Ordinance, the Northwest Ordinance is a rock-solid example of the nonsectarian religious predicate embraced as constitutional law. When the Articles of Confederation was replaced by the new Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance was passed again and became effective under the new Constitution. George Washington signed the Northwest Ordinance back into law on August 7, 1789. Article III specified that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.”
“During this same period of time (July 17 to August 7, 1789), the same men who had implemented the Northwest Ordinance were writing the First Amendment to the Constitution [prohibiting government officials from interfering with religious freedom, printing press and education competition].”***
*Harry Atwood, The Constitution Explained, 4th ed. (Merrimac, MA: Destiny Publishers, 1992), 4.
**Education Resources Information Center website, ED285786. Teaching about the US Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance.
***David Barton, Education and the Founding Fathers (Aledo, Texas: WallBuilder Press, 1993), 4.
~ D. Norris