"Bicentennial Observance of the U.S. Constitution." CQ Electronic Library, CQ Historic Documents Series Online Edition, hsdc87-0001161275. Originally published in Historic Documents of 1987 (Washington: CQ Press, 1988).

Bicentennial Observance of the U.S. Constitution

A historic document from September 17 and 18, 1987


"If our Constitution has endured, through times perilous as well as prosperous, it has not been simply as a plan of government, no matter how ingenious or inspired that might be. This document that we honor today has always been something more to us, filled with a deeper feeling than one of simple admiration—a feeling, one might say, more of reverence."

Those words were spoken by the thirty-ninth president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, in a speech commemorating the 200th birthday of the signing of the Constitution September 17. His remarks were delivered at a gala festival in Philadelphia, where—after months of heated debate—thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention had signed a historic document on that date in 1787.

The celebration capped months of festivities and instruction to remind Americans of the Constitution's vitality as the foundation of the U.S. democratic system—the oldest constitution in existence, fashioned by one of the world's youngest nations. A prime organizer of the celebration was former chief justice of the United States Warren E. Burger (1969—1986). Speaking before a joint session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in Philadelphia September 18, Burger noted the Constitution's commercial importance in preventing the “Balkanization” of the original thirteen states.

The 1987 Fête and Other Anniversaries

The September 1987 panoply had been preceded by two other patriotic extravangazas. One was the July 1986 unveiling of the restored Statue of Liberty. Ten years earlier communities across America had celebrated the best-known and most frequently quoted of U.S. civic treatises, the Declaration of Independence. Although the Constitution's bicentennial was similar in many ways, its aura was somewhat different, perhaps because the document itself was not viewed as “glamorous” or vivid, as were the “spirit of '76” or “the Lady.” (Historic Documents of 1976, p. 509; Historic Documents of 1986, p. 697)

Yet the September festivities recalled a similar event of July 4, 1788. Then, bells pealed from Philadelphia's Christ Church steeple and cannon discharged from the ship Rising Sun, anchored in the Delaware River. Later that morning, the streets of Philadelphia saw a Federal Procession, complete with a herald on horseback proclaiming a new era and a float in the form of a large eagle. More than the twelve-year-old Declaration of Independence was being celebrated that day: in the preceding months the new Constitution had been ratified by Pennsylvania and nine of the other thirteen states, enough to give the document life and the fledgling nation hope. After the parade, 17,000 people—more than half the city—gathered at Union Green. That evening, in honor of the festival, the Rising Sun was handsomely illuminated.

The September 1987 fifteen-hour gala provided a spectacle of floats, balloons, flags, bells, and speeches, with the Goodyear blimp providing a bird's eye view. College bands from every state in the Union played a brass fanfare written especially for the occasion, and a flag-waving drill team performed in front of Independence Hall. In all, 20,000 people marched and performed—including fifers and drummers, a colonial saluting battery, and nine bell-ringing town criers in eighteenth-century garb—before a quarter of a million spectators. At 4:00 p.m., the moment the Framers had signed the four-page Constitution, Burger rang a replica of the Liberty Bell, signaling a round of bell ringing in communities throughout the nation and at U.S. diplomatic missions and military installations abroad.

Assembly at Philadelphia

Speaking at the ceremonies, Reagan described the Constitution as having been “born in crisis” as the new nation, bound loosely under the Articles of Confederation, confronted outstanding debts from the Revolutionary War and dissension among the thirteen states. But, the president continued, “the vision of democratic government” that had inspired the revolution was the driving force enabling the delegates to the Constitutional Convention “to rise above politics and self-interest” and reach compromises on a new framework of government. “In a very real sense, it was then, in 1787, that the revolution truly began,” he said.

The call for the Philadelphia convention had been agreed to by the Continental Congress in 1787. All states except Rhode Island sent delegations chosen by the respective state legislatures. The Framers, whose average age was just over forty-three, were lawyers, planters, farmers, merchants, and politicians. They were, for the most part, men of reputation and experience.

The consensus that it was necessary to establish a strong national government emerged very early on, when the delegates agreed to scrap the Articles of Confederation and write a new Constitution that would be supreme. The new government was to have three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial. The rest of the negotiations, for all the serious disagreements and famous compromises that occurred, really amounted to working out the details.

But ratification of the new Constitution was by no means assured. As the months went on and the struggle over approval proceeded, the Federalists (as proponents called themselves) began to agree to “ratification with recommendations”—that is, approval of the Constitution with the proviso that the new Congress initiate amendments, especially to guarantee individual rights and liberties. In five states ratification was obtained with “recommendations” that ultimately resulted in the Bill of Rights.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new document; although nine was the required number, the still-to-come verdicts in Virginia and New York were critical to the success of the Union. Virginia's approval came on June 25 and New York's on July 26, after struggles in both states. The two remaining states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, did not approve the Constitution until 1789 and 1790.

Within only a few years, men of all political views came to hold the Constitution in great respect, even if they disagreed about the meaning of some of its clauses. But respected or not, the Constitution itself was mere words on parchment. It provided for a national government, but could hardly guarantee that government's effectiveness. Moreover, the strength of the national government was tested at critical periods in the nation's history, and heated debate over interpreting the Constitution has continued.

Imperfections and Ignorance

Although Americans celebrated the 200th birthday of the federal government's charter, renewed attention pointed to what some felt were the document's flaws and demonstrated that many citizens lacked a clear perception of what the Constitution actually said.

One of the Constitution's critics was Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Court's only black justice. While paying tribute to the document, Marshall, in a May 6, 1987, speech, said the Constitution was

"defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional

government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today."

The credit for abolishing slavery and granting women the right to vote “does not belong to the framers,” he said. “It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of 'liberty,' 'justice' and 'equality' and who strived to better them.” Marshall said he planned “to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document” that included “the Bill of Rights and other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.”

A fall 1986 survey conducted by the Hearst Corporation indicated that although 54 percent of those questioned knew the purpose of the Constitution was “to create a federal government and define its powers,” 25 percent thought the document declared independence from England. Most seemed to confuse the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence or with President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Only four persons in ten knew that the Bill of Rights was the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Following are excerpts from President Ronald Reagan's remarks at a “Celebration of Citizenship” in Philadelphia on September 17, 1987; and the text of the speech delivered by former chief justice of the United States Warren E. Burger before the Pennsylvania General Assembly in Philadelphia on September 18, 1987:


Thank you all very much. With so many distinguished guests, I hope you'll excuse me if I single out just one. He has devoted a lifetime of service to his country, and occupied one of the highest offices in our land. And recently he stepped down to lead the nation in our bicentennial celebrations. Well, by a happy coincidence, this day that marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution, also happens to be his birthday. Today, Chief Justice Warren Burger is 80 years old. And Warren, we of the younger generation salute you. Congratulations.

As we stand here today before Independence Hall, we can easily imagine that day, September 17, 1787, when the delegates rose from their chairs and arranged themselves according to the geography of their States, beginning with New Hampshire and moving south to Georgia. They had labored for 4 months through the terrible heat of the Philadelphia summer, but they knew as they moved forward to sign their names to that new document that in many ways their work had just begun. This new Constitution, this new plan of government, faced a skeptical, even hostile reception in much of the country.

To look back on that time, at the difficulties faced and surmounted, can only give us perspective on the present. Each generation, every age, I imagine, is prone to think itself beset by unusual and particularly threatening difficulties, to look back on the past as a golden age when issues were not so complex and politics not so divisive, when problems did not seem so intractable.

Sometimes we're tempted to think of the birth of our country as one such golden age, a time characterized primarily by harmony and cooperation. In fact, the Constitution and our government were born in crisis. The years leading up to our Constitutional Convention were some of the most difficult our nation ever endured. This young nation, threatened on every side by hostile powers, was on the verge of economic collapse. In some States inflation raged out of control; debt was crushing. In Massachusetts, ruinously high taxes provided—or provoked an uprising of poor farmers led by a former Revolutionary War captain, Daniel Shays.

Trade disputes between the States were bitter and sometimes violent, threatening not only the economy but even the peace. No one thought him guilty of exaggeration when Edmund Randolph described the perilous state of the confederacy. “Look at the public countenance,” he said, “from New Hampshire to Georgia! Are we not on the eve of war, which is only prevented by the hopes from this Convention?”

Yes, but these hopes were matched in many others by equally strong suspicions. Wasn't this Convention just designed to steal from the States their sovereignty, to usurp their freedoms so recently fought for? Patrick Henry, the famous orator of the Revolution, thought so. He refused to attend the Convention, saying with his usual talent for understatement, that he “smelt a rat.”

The Articles of Confederation, all could see, were not strong enough to hold this new nation together. But there was no general agreement on how a stronger Federal Government should be constituted—or, indeed, whether one should be constituted at all. There were strong secessionist feelings in many parts of the country. In Boston, some were calling for a separate nation of New England. Others felt the 13 States should divide into three independent nations. And it came as a shock to George Washington, recently traveling in New England, to find that sentiment in favor of returning to a monarchy still ran strong in that region.

No, it wasn't the absence of problems that won the day in 1787. It wasn't the absence of division and difficulty; it was the presence of something higher—the vision of democratic government founded upon those self-evident truths that still resounded in Independence Hall. It was that ideal, proclaimed so proudly in this hall a decade earlier, that enabled them to rise above politics and self-interest, to transcend their differences and together create this document, this Constitution that would profoundly and forever alter not just these United States but the world.

In a very real sense, it was then, in 1787, that the Revolution truly began. For it was with the writing of our Constitution, setting down the architecture of democratic government, that the noble sentiments and brave rhetoric of 1776 took on substance, that the hopes and dreams of the revolutionists could become a living, enduring reality.

All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—until that moment some might have said that was just a high-blown sentiment, the dreams of a few philosophers and their hot-headed followers. But could one really construct a government, run a country, with such idealistic notions?

But once those ideals took root in living, functioning institutions, once those notions became a nation—well, then, as I said, the revolution could really begin, not just in America but around the world, a revolution to free man from tyranny of every sort and secure his freedom the only way possible in this world, through the checks and balances and institutions of limited, democratic government.

Checks and balances, limited government—the genius of our constitutional system is its recognition that no one branch of government alone could be relied on to preserve our freedoms. The great safeguard of our liberty is the totality of the constitutional system, with no one part getting the upper hand. And that's why the judiciary must be independent. And that's why it also must exercise restraint.

If our Constitution has endured, through times perilous as well as prosperous, it has not been simply as a plan of government, no matter how ingenious or inspired that might be. This document that we honor today has always been something more to us, filled with a deeper feeling than one of simple admiration—a feeling, one might say, more of reverence.

One scholar described our Constitution as a kind of covenant. It is a covenant we've made not only with ourselves but with all of mankind. As John Quincy Adams promised, “Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benedictions and her prayers.” It's a human covenant; yes, and beyond that, a covenant with the Supreme Being to whom our Founding Fathers did constantly appeal for assistance.

It is an oath of allegiance to that in man that is truly universal, that core of being that exists before and beyond distinctions of class, race, or national origin. It is a dedication of faith to the humanity we all share, that part of each man and woman that most closely touches on the divine.

And it was perhaps from that divine source that the men who came together in this hall 200 years ago drew the inspiration and strength to face the crisis of their great hopes and overcome their many divisions. After all, both Madison and Washington were to refer to the outcome of the Constitutional Convention as a miracle; and miracles, of course, have only one origin.

“No people,” said George Washington in his Inaugural Address,

"can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some providential agency."

No doubt he was thinking of the great and good fortune of this young land: the abundant and fertile continent given us, far from the warring powers of Europe; the successful struggle against the greatest proof—or power of that day, England; the happy outcome of the Constitutional Convention and the debate over ratification.

But he knew, too, as he also said, that there is an “indissoluble union” between duty and advantage, and that the guiding hand of providence did not create this new nation of America for ourselves alone, but for a higher cause: the preservation and extension of the sacred fire of human liberty. This is America's solemn duty.

During the summer of 1787, as the delegates clashed and debated, Washington left the heat of Philadelphia with his trout fishing companion, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, made a pilgrimage to Valley Forge. Ten years before, his Continental Army had been camped there through the winter. Food was low, medical supplies nonexistent, his soldiers had to go “half in rags in the killing cold, their torn feet leaving bloodstains as they walked shoeless on the icy ground.”

Gouverneur Morris reported that the general was silent throughout the trip. He did not confide his emotions as he surveyed the scene of past hardship. One can imagine that his conversation was with someone else—that it took more the form of prayer for this new nation, that such sacrifices be not in vain, that the hope and promise that survived such a terrible winter of suffering not be allowed to wither now that it was summer.

One imagines that he also did what we do today in this gathering and celebration, what will always be America's foremost duty—to constantly renew that covenant with humanity, with a world yearning to breathe free; to complete the work begun 200 years ago, that grand, noble work that is America's particular calling—the triumph of human freedom, the triumph of human freedom under God.

I have, a number of times, said that you may call it mysticism, but I have always believed that this land was put here to be found by a special kind of people. And may I simply say also, a man wrote me a letter, and I would call to your attention what he did to mine. You could go from here to live in another country, France, but you wouldn't become a Frenchman. You could go to Japan and live there, but you wouldn't become a Japanese. But people from every corner of the world can come to this country and become an American.

I think a moment ago I was given a cue, and I can think of no more fitting tribute to the Constitution's bicentennial than ringing the Centennial Bell, and with it, will be rung bells all over the Nation.


In this city, in this setting, and on this day when the Constitution first became available 200 years ago for a waiting people—and for the Pennsylvania Assembly—it is a good time to turn back to those events. Probably it goes too far to suggest that the people as a whole—3 to 4 million—were “waiting.” Most were going about their daily affairs, only vaguely aware that something was going on in distant Philadelphia, two weeks travel from Georgia, four days from Mount Vernon.

We remember that the resolution of the Continental Congress calling the Philadelphia meeting had given no hint of drafting a new Constitution and that it was drafted in secrecy at a time when the “leakage” malady that plagues some aspects of modern government was not a serious problem.

We remember, too, that when the Annapolis Convention in September 1786 resolved to ask for a meeting of the states to consider both commercial and political problems of the thirteen states, only five states were present. The resistance to central planning, to the idea of a central, federal government, was so strong that the Continental Congress rejected the idea of calling a “Constitutional Convention.” Their resolution invited states to send delegates to Philadelphia in May, 1787, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

It is difficult to realize that those hardy people operating under the feeble Articles of Confederation had won a Revolution against a great world power. The Articles were hardly more than a multilateral treaty which the 13 allied states described as “a firm league of friendship.” [Indeed, the Revolutionary War was carried on under a de facto government since the Articles of Confederation were not ratified until 1781.]

After the victory at Yorktown, many of the leaders knew that “a firm league of friendship” would not work for the future. George Washington had spent that terrible winter at Valley Forge, a few miles from where we meet today. Alexander Hamilton was one of his staff aides. They had watched their comrades die for want of needed supplies. There was no way to compel the states to pay for the armies.

Once peace had been achieved, the rivalries and tensions between the states began to surface. What happened was what has happened to every victorious alliance in history; the 13 allies began to fall out; Virginia and Maryland quarreled over boundaries and navigation, Pennsylvania and Connecticut over territory in western Pennsylvania claimed by Connecticut, New Jersey and New York over commercial matters. Since each state was free to maintain its own army and navy, there were threats—and acts—to resolve claims with force. In Massachusetts, Colonel Shays' troops engaged in a small war against state forces. For a time Shays' Rebellion closed courts in Massachusetts.

How long could a “firm league of friendship” secure that “domestic tranquillity” so essential to unity—and progress?

The spirit of the New Jersey troops who resisted taking an oath to the United States saying, “Our country is New Jersey,” was pervasive throughout the 13 states.

In the Virginia Declaration of Rights George Mason had written that if a free people do not, from time to time, look back at their freedoms and how they got them, they risk losing those freedoms. In looking back the wonder of what happened can be seen. When we do that it becomes clear that it was not all predestined, foreordained or easy to make a nation out of 13 independent “sovereigns.”

Sometimes I find it useful to compare several episodes of history that help me to understand the significance of what happened in Philadelphia.

We remember that these 13 states were independent and sovereign in 1787 and some of the leading figures, like Patrick Henry and New York's Governor Clinton, missed no opportunity to press that point. Henry refused to be a delegate to Philadelphia; he wanted no part of a strong federal union. In 1787 each state could issue its own currency, each could raise protectionist tariffs against other states' products, whether anvils, rifles, horse harness or carrots.

No one had combined the words, “common” and “market,” but Hamilton and Madison and some of the great Pennsylvania delegates like Franklin and the Morrises knew there must be a “common market” if manufacture and trade—and the new nation—were to develop. Sixteen words in Article I of the Constitution—the Commerce Clause—gave us the reality of a common market from the beginning. Few parts of the new Constitution had more impact on our moving from a cluster of independent states on the edge of a wilderness to a great world power.

Had it not been for the wisdom of those extraordinary men who sat here 200 years ago, our thirteen independent states would have been Balkanized from the beginning. If we had not created a “more perfect union,” to provide for the common defense, it would have been easy for the Great Powers of that day to pick off our “sovereign” and “independent” states one by one. One great power might say to another, “let us have Massachusetts and New Hampshire and we won't bother you about the Carolinas and Georgia.”

That is what those Founding Fathers meant when they made a national policy out of John Dickinson's slogan, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

It was not until the Treaty of Rome, 170 years after the delegates sat down for dinner at Philadelphia's City Tavern, that Europe began to reach for a common market—and its objectives are not yet fully realized.

Speculate with me, if you will, what would have been the history of Europe—and of the world—if something like the 1957 Treaty of Rome had opened the doors of Europe to the Common Market in 1789. Would it not have encouraged commercial competition in place of cartels? Would a common market for Europe in 1789 have led to swift development of a common second language to expedite trade—as has developed in the 30 years since the Treaty of Rome?

We know, too, that the Common Market of the 13 states lessened the tensions and parochial attitudes just as modern travel has opened doors and borders for us over the years.

Would a common market for Europe in 1789 have tolerated Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin? If business leaders in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Rome and Madrid had shared an interest in manufacture and open trade—and peace—is it possible that they would have insisted on policies and leadership that would have avoided the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II?

It is 70 years since the ideas of Karl Marx brought a revolution in Russia under the guiding hand of Lenin. These revolutionists knew, as our leaders of 1776 knew, how to plan and fight a revolution, but there was an important difference. Our leaders also knew how to govern. The Communists imposed—and still to this day impose—their will by fear and force. Our leaders charted a course of rule by the consent of the governed. Today, seventy years after the Red Revolution, Mr. Gorbachev seems to be drawing away from the policy of maintaining a state of constant fear of attack from the Western World.

Of course, we have social and economic problems here at home, but our domestic problems are chiefly the expansion and enforcement of individual rights and opportunities.

History tells us that dreams and hopes can lead to change because of the power of an idea in a free society. And this is what happened with those who came here more than three centuries ago—at Plymouth and in Jamestown—who came here seeking freedom and opportunity. Those who met in Philadelphia had a dream of a strong union that would provide the freedoms and opportunities they sought.

In recent days we have read and heard much of the hopes and aspiration of our neighbors in the five Central American countries. The people and leaders of those countries are no less concerned with liberty than we are.

The delegates at Philadelphia, 200 years ago, saw the need to forge a union to preserve their independence and security. They knew that a union of the 13 states was imperative to insure the domestic tranquillity essential to growth and development—and to protect their new freedoms.

In many respects the search of our Central American neighbors for independence and individual freedom parallels our search that began so long ago. Their proposed plan to foreclose outside influences and interference with their affairs and their desire to terminate military activities that have interfered with development of much of Central America for years. Some of those leaders recognize that if a third country can divide them, that third country can conquer them.

Our 13 states had some advantages 200 years ago; they shared a common language and a common tradition. They knew that England, Spain and other powers had designs on North America. Even after our independence the great powers still had designs on the rich lands South and West of our 13 states. And France, our recent ally, could not stand by and allow other great powers to enlarge their footholds on this continent.

Just as the Communist world seeks to enlarge its influence and control in the Caribbean Basin our risk 200 years ago was that unless we united our states—each with its own currency, each controlling its borders, each carrying on small commercial wars with the others—we would have been easy victims of the Great Powers in the decades following the end of the Revolution.

I have speculated with you on what would have been the impact of a Common Market for Europe beginning in 1789; it may be useful to speculate on the problems of the five Central American states today.

Would it not stabilize this hemisphere as a whole if the five Central American states had a long period of domestic tranquillity and freedom from outside interference or subversion? Could that come about if a James Madison of Costa Rica, an Alexander Hamilton of Honduras joined in, calling for a meeting like our Annapolis Convention of 1786, followed by a call for a meeting like ours here in Philadelphia, to “form a more perfect union”?

Is it fanciful to think that leaders of those five states, all of whom want greater freedom and greater economic opportunity for their people, might see, as our Founding Fathers saw, that there is strength in unity and that only the strong can be free? Such a gathering should be as free as our 13 states were to shape their own future. When they look at today's world with so many millions ruled by dictatorships—of the Right or the Left—surely they will see that their people should be guaranteed a third alternative, as the delegates did in Philadelphia.

The five Central American states have, in many respects, an even more favorable setting than did our 13 states two hundred years ago. Then we had a common language, common borders, and a common tradition, but marked diversity in religion. The five Central American states have geographic unity, a common tradition, a common language and largely a common religion. And surely they share hopes for the kind of domestic tranquillity that will assure freedom and greater individual opportunity. The urge to be free is not confined within any political borders or Berlin Walls.

Of course, the resolution of their problems and their future is exclusively a matter for the people of those five states for each is wholly sovereign and independent, as were our states. We share with them the urge for the domestic tranquillity essential to freedom under the rule of law. And, as we drew on the wisdom of France, England and Scotland, they can draw on our experience if they choose.

Here, as the nation joins Philadelphia in this celebration, we must remember that 200 years ago our people faced great perils. A wilderness and great social and economic problems were there to conquer. Risks and challenges are present today. But, if we remain on course, keeping faith with the vision of the Founders, with freedom under ordered liberty, we will have done our part to see that the great new idea of government by consent—by We the People—remains in place.


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