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GUEST COLUMNIST: The Constitution of The United States was anything but easy

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Mike Ragland -Cotton in my Blood

Mike Ragland, Guest Columnist

I have this penchant for history and tradition. And the more some of our countrymen wish to tear it all down, or change it to something unrecognizable, the more interested I get.

There is now a movement to call for a convention of states to add some amendments to the existing document or possibly change some of the current wording.

You have to be careful here. Once you convene such a group, anything can happen. What I’m saying is this country was under a form of government known as the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789. It served a purpose during the Revolutionary War, but was basically useless in post war issues.

Rhode Island wanted to tax everybody that had goods passing through their state on the post road. Shays rebellion took place in Massachusetts, and the state had a hard time putting it down. The Confederation had no taxing power, and couldn’t force delinquent states to pay up. Maryland and Virginia had a heated dispute over Potomac River land, and Georgia couldn’t get any help from the government to help them deal with the Creek nation, who owned more of what we know as Georgia, than the state did. Plus the Cherokee in the north also had a sizeable chunk. Georgia wanted a government army to deal with the Creek, as did Massachusetts to deal with rebellions between farmers and merchants.

In September, 1786, at the Annapolis Convention, delegates from five states called for a constitutional convention in order to discuss possible improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787. And the fun begins.

Rhode Island, fearing there was no way they could come out ahead, boycotted the convention from the beginning. It would be May 25th before a quorum of seven states would arrive at the Convention, and New Hampshire wouldn’t show up till mid-July.

Madison and Hamilton never had any plan to improve upon the Articles of Confederation. They intended from the start to rewrite the entire Constitution and form a nationalistic government.

Madison had what was known as the Virginia plan, and presented it almost immediately. One of the first things the delegates agreed upon was to go beyond its mandate, and to produce a new Constitution outright.

While some delegates thought this was illegal, the fact was no one liked the Articles of Confederation, which was nothing more than a treaty between states.

The bicameral form of government suggested by Madison was easily passed. It was based on English law and was what most Americans were used to. The division of powers was also agreed on, many legislatures throughout the colonies held power over the head of state, and caused a type of paralysis.

Each state was allowed to cast a single vote — either for or against a proposal — during the debates in accordance with the majority of the state’s other delegates. Throughout the convention, delegates would regularly come and go, with only 30-40 being present on a typical day. If the state’s delegates were equally divided in their views on a given proposal, then that state essentially had no effect on the outcome of the proposal.

For instance, two of New York’s three delegates left the convention and went home, stating they wouldn’t be back, leaving Hamilton all alone and unable to vote, although he did hang around and took part in the debates.

Georgia had authorized six delegates to attend, of which two never showed up, and two more were only there for a short time. Our signee, William Few, was splitting his time between the convention and congress, thus he missed all of July and half of August due to congressional duties. But he was a strong supporter of nationalism, and of James Madison, and helped push the convention forward.

When you read over the debates that occurred, it is amazing that anything passed. Some wanted senators to be appointed for life (and we want term limits). There was strong opposition to everything that was brought up. They even formed a committee to address issues that had been postponed.

And somehow it passed, with only eleven of the states debating and finally making a draft. Yes, it was signed by 39 of the original 55 delegates, with 13 refusing to sign that had left, and three refused on signing day.

It was said that no one delegate was pleased with the entire document, and that included Dr. Franklin, who stated he doubted he would ever agree with all of it, but was surprised at the perfection it did acquire, and he thought our enemies would be astonished at the document.

That was only 11 states, and it took from May 25 to September 17 to get it done. Now it will take three-fourths of our 50 states to make changes to the present one. I’ve heard there is a call for a balanced budget amendment and for term limits for members of congress. But just like the first one that was called to improve the Articles of Confederation, it can very easily mushroom into something totally different.

Don’t get me wrong, a convention of the states would be living history in action, and I would love to get to sit in the gallery a few days. I hope they hold it in Cave Spring where I can walk to the meetings. I can’t imagine the debating what would go on between the Southern states and New England or the left coast.

I would think they would first have to decide if each meeting would be opened with a prayer (that was not a problem at the first one).

Let me leave you with this. Dr. Franklin said he had stared at the president of the convention’s chair for four months. There was a carving of a sun on it. He said he was unable to ascertain if it was a rising, or setting sun. As the delegates lined up to sign the Constitution, he stated he was confident it was a rising sun.

I wonder if he would still feel that way today.

Mike Ragland is a Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Living with Lucy.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com