Jack Rakove on the U.S. Constitution
Please tell us about the document that preceded the Constitution.
The Articles of Confederation formed America’s first federal constitution. It was framed in 1776 and 1777 but not ratified until 1781. The articles created a unicameral Continental Congress, which had no authority to legislate; it could not pass statutes. Its members generally served for only a few months at a time and went home often. The Continental Congress did much of its work by sending resolutions, recommendations and requisitions to the states. It assumed that the states would simply do the right thing for the United States. That assumption turned out to be terribly naive. Figuring out how to replace the articles was the challenge the framers faced in 1787.
Although the United States is a relatively young country, we have the oldest written constitution still in use. What is uniquely enduring about the document?
What’s uniquely enduring about the document is how deeply Americans are wedded to it. When Americans started writing constitutions in the 1770s, doing so was a new idea. The idea of having a written constitution as the original supreme fundamental source of law was an American invention. Now most nations around the world, with a few notable exceptions, have written constitutions.
But the United States remains uniquely wedded to our Constitution. We’re very reluctant to amend it. The idea of rethinking decisions made in 1787 scares some of us to death. So there’s a curious story: in the 1780s Americans expressed confidence in their ability to devise new institutions of government as a supreme act of political wisdom, but today we are unable to imagine how we could ever improve upon what the framers did....
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