It happened today - June 21, 2015

ConstitutionOn June 21, in 1788, the U.S. Constitution became fundamental law when New Hampshire provided the necessary 9th ratification for it to come into operation. Which was no big deal.

Why, then, am I writing about it? Simple. It illustrates the remarkable genius of the Constitution, its seamless combination of practical and theoretical wisdom in nearly every area except race.

Clearly a simple majority of states would be insufficient for ratification to have legitimacy. To replace the Articles of Confederation, defective as they were, with an effective national government seemed to many people to threaten their newly-won liberty. Yet to require unanimity would have invited blackmail from the most recalcitrant state, big or small, perpetuating the paralysis that the Articles had created. So nine, two-thirds, was a sensible compromise.

For all that, getting New Hampshire was no big deal because New Hampshire, though a fine place, is no big deal. Everyone understood that the Constitution would fail if it did not attract the larger states, especially the big two, Massachusetts in the north and Virginia in the South. The Constitution had to speak for more than numbers. It had to speak for regions, for political cultures, to command sufficiently broad support to have fundamental legitimacy.

The Constitution attracted five ratifications in rapid succession at the outset: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. But nobody would have mistaken those for the nucleus of a nation although Pennsylvania was a lot more important in those days and New York a lot less so than each would later become. Promises of a Bill of Rights to make limitations on the federal government more explicit then secured the ratification of Massachusetts, then Maryland and South Carolina. But only with the addition of Virginia soon after New Hampshire (and New York shortly thereafter) was the deal really done.

It is not pleasant to compare the process whereby the Constitution Act, 1982 became fundamental law in Canada, or by which Meech Lake and then the Charlottetown Accord were handled.

Now the U.S. Constitution turned out to be flawed in some of its mechanics, for instance respecting presidential elections. The Founding Fathers, for all their worldliness, did manage to underestimate the power of partisanship. And it went badly wrong when it came to slavery. I understand the motives of northerners who compromised on a subject on which the South was unbending in order to secure union, though I hope if I had been there I would have had the clarity and courage to oppose that bargain. But I really do not think it is realistic to think I would have been wiser than those who, despite their egregious stumble on race, managed to be so practical and so deep at the same time.

Including on arranging the mechanics of ratification in such a way as to create underlying legitimacy.