The ideas that formed the Constitution



Who created the ideas behind the US Constitution?

The history books tell how the Constitution was composed by its 55 “drafters” from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

But there is much more to the story than that.

On September 28, 1787, the Confederation Congress asked state legislatures to provide for the election of delegates to popular conventions to ratify or reject the Constitution. It sparked the biggest political debate in American history. People from all walks of life – from the wealthiest merchants in the cities to artisans in the cities, farmers in the countryside and even slaves in the kitchens – discussed every aspect of the document.

Each state legislature eventually allowed its electors to elect delegates to a state ratifying convention. Although states had ownership requirements for voting, those requirements were generally easy to meet, and for this election some states waived them entirely.

Nor was the process limited to white men. Women participated by campaigning – and in New Jersey (and perhaps sporadically elsewhere) by voting themselves. (New Jersey resident Annis Stockton, wife and mother-in-law of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, claimed that in America “women have an equal right to everything.”)

In five states, free African Americans also voted on the Constitution.

On December 7, 1787, the Delaware Convention was unanimously ratified. Delaware’s ratification was followed by all other states, including the new 14th state of Vermont (January 10, 1791).

Textbook emphasis on the drafters sometimes leads us to forget that although the Constitution had only 55 drafters, the delegates to the convention who adopted it as “the supreme law of the land” numbered of 1,757 (including Vermont’s 109). Several thousand citizens voted for these delegates. It was the greatest exercise in people’s democracy ever recorded.

In the years that followed, the Founders’ Constitution, as amended from time to time, served as the political structure of a nation that became the most prosperous the world has ever known. Even today, while certain provisions of the Constitution have erodedmost of the document continues in full force.

Where did the founders find their ideas?

What were the formative ideas behind this brilliant success? Where do they come from? How did the founding generation incorporate them into the Constitution?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll answer these questions in a series of essays. The series will examine the lives and ideas of writers who influenced the founding generation and inspired a new adventure in self-government.

The trust of the Founders was built in part on faith in a benevolent God. The myth that most of the founders were deists or pure lay people is just that – a myth. The overwhelming majority of the founding generation was Christian; the small remnant were primarily Jewish. They were therefore strongly influenced by the Bible. So heavily, in fact, that biblical influences were more important than any short series of essays can address.

These essays will therefore focus on the writers who taught the Founders their political lessons—their lessons in republicanism, political organization, and political virtue.

Organization of the series

Each essay will describe the life and contributions of one or two historical figures. He will explain how the Founders integrated the ideas of these personalities into the constitutional order.

We will proceed chronologically, according to the time during which each historical figure lived.

In addition to religious instruction, the education of the Founders centered on the pre-Christian classics of ancient Greece and Rome. Long after leaving school, the main founders reread these classics over and over again. Many of the thinkers examined in this series were prominent authors in the Greco-Roman tradition.

We’ll start with the Greek philosopher Plato, who borrowed a lot from his mentor, Socrates. Next, we will turn to Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of all.

The extraordinary Greek historian Polybius will be the subject of the next essay. Polybius wrote and participated in significant events in the growth of the Roman Republic. The following essays will be directed to three statesmen of the Last Republic: the elder and younger Cato, and John Adams’ personal favorite, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

We then move on to the early Roman Empire, covering the poets Virgil, Ovid and Horace and the historian Titius Livius (Livy). Next, we’ll look at early Roman thinkers of the first and second centuries: the essayists Seneca and Pliny, the historian Cornelius Tacitus, and the endearing biographers Plutarch (who wrote in Greek) and Gaius Suetonius (who wrote in Latin).

Then we will enter the medieval Christian period with Niccolò Machiavelli, a man less respected by the founders for his famous work “The Prince” than for his “Discourse on Livy”.

Finally, we will approach writers from the relatively recent past of the Founders: the Englishmen James Harrington, Algernon Sidney and John Locke; the very influential French Baron Montesquieu; and lesser-known Swiss writers Jean-Louis DeLolme and Emer de Vattel. I reserve the right to add a few more.

Before we get to any of these specific people, however, we’ll need to explore how the main founders were educated. This is the subject of the next essay.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.


Robert G. Natelson, a former professor of constitutional law, is senior scholar of constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver.


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