The U.S. Constitution still amazes historian Ron Bryant.
With the 225th anniversary of its creation Sept. 17, Bryant discussed at a Daughters of the American Revolution luncheon Thursday the struggle surrounding the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
Tension among delegates grew with divisive topics like slavery and the makeup of Congress, and Benjamin Franklin, a deist, suggested they open their secret meetings with a prayer.
“That defused a lot of tensions right there,” said Bryant, director of Waveland Historic Site in Lexington. “They had a prayer, and Congress to this day still opens with a prayer.”
Talks at the Convention almost broke down three times, Bryant said, as a number of issues were resolved through compromise. Delegates set a bicameral Congress with each state getting two senators – elected by the state legislature until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 – and representatives based on population size, Bryant said.
Many delegates opposed slavery, Bryant said, but the U.S. slave trade was allowed to continue until 1808 under the Constitution.
The cotton gin, which made slave labor key to large profits, changed that plan, according to Bryant.
Bryant said he hoped the spirit of compromise in the Constitution resonated with the audience of about 25.
“You can’t be arbitrary and get by in a country as complex as the United States,” he said after the DAR lunch at the Frankfort Country Club. “You can’t. I think we’re showing that too in this day and time.
“… If our present leaders would read the document and study it and look at what the founding fathers actually did, then yes, I think they would be much better equipped to govern us.”
The Constitution wasn’t universally accepted and created rifts in the U.S. During his inaugural tour as president in 1789, George Washington refused to step foot in Rhode Island, which didn’t ratify the Constitution until 1790 “because it was foreign territory,” Bryant said.
Bryant said the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written constitution in existence, has served as the example for other nations developing governing documents.
“We set the standard for the French constitution when the French Revolution swept through,” Bryant said. “… Later on, country after country after country will actually try to copy our Constitution.
“After World War I, and the monarchies of Europe are collapsing right and left, when they were writing constitutions, they looked at ours.”
He praised DAR’s efforts to increase awareness about the Constitution during its 225th anniversary, such as putting up posters at schools and hanging banners with the Constitution’s preamble along Capital Avenue.
“That’s what all of your liberties, all of your government sits upon,” Bryant said of the Constitution. “That is the foundation, and we should be thankful, as someone would have said in those days, to the great divinity above that we had such far-sighted men to create such a government for us.”