While today we marvel at the extraordinary accomplishment of our Founding Fathers, their own reaction to the U.S. Constitution when it was presented to them on Sept. 17, 1787, for their signatures was considerably less enthusiastic.
Benjamin Franklin, ever the optimist even at the age of 81, gave what was for him a remarkably restrained assessment in his final speech before the Constitutional Convention: "...when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views."
But he believed that the Constitution they had just drafted, "with all its faults," was better than any alternative that was likely to emerge.
But there was much in the culture and environment that contributed to a national consensus and cohesion: a common language; a solid belief in the principles of English common law and constitutionalism; a widespread commitment (albeit in diverse forms) to the Protestant religion; a shared revolutionary experience; and, perhaps most important, an economic environment which promised most free, white Americans if not great wealth, at least an independent sufficiency.
Most Americans today assume that principles of democracy and national harmony somehow naturally go hand-in-hand. But as we look around the rest of the world in the post-Soviet era, we find ample evidence that democratic revolutions do not inevitably lead to national harmony or universal justice.
In far too many places, the expression of the "popular will" is nothing more than the unleashing of primordial forces of tribal and religious identity which confound the goal of building stable and consensual governments.
Our symbol of unity
As we look at the state of our federal union 211 years after the Founders completed their work, there is cause for satisfaction. The U.S. Constitution itself has not only survived the crises confronting it in the past, but in so doing, it has in itself become our nation's most powerful symbol of unity - a far preferable alternative to a monarch or a national religion.
Moreover, our Constitution is a stronger, better document than it was when it initially emerged from the Philadelphia Convention. Through the amendment process (in particular, through the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments), it has become the protector of the rights of all the people, not just some of us.
On the other hand, the challenges to national unity are, if anything, far greater than those confronting the infant nation in 1787. The widening gulf between rich and poor is perhaps the most serious threat to the "pursuit of happiness."
Some of today's conditions are part of the tragic legacy of slavery - a racial climate marked too often by mutual mistrust and misunderstanding and a desperate poverty within our inner cities that has left many young people so alienated that any standard definition of citizenship becomes meaningless.
Perhaps just as alarming, tens of millions of Americans don't vote.
If there is a lesson in all of this it is that our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens.
There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: "A republic, if you can keep it." The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: Democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.
Richard Beeman, Ph.D., is professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Beeman is the first Senior Visiting Scholar of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Originally published on December 3, 1998