On Sept. 17, 1787, a small cluster of American notables who had been meeting behind closed doors in Philadelphia went public with an audacious proposal. The plan, signed by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and 37 other leading statesmen, began as follows: "We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Of course, on Sept. 17, nothing had yet been ordained or established. The proposal was a mere piece of paper. But what happened over the ensuing year, in special elections held in every state, made the opening words flesh: We, the people of the United States, did in fact ordain and establish the Sept. 17 proposal.
This was big news on the world stage. Before the American Revolution, no regime in history — not ancient Athens, not republican Rome, not Florence nor the Swiss nor the Dutch nor the British — had ever successfully adopted a written constitution by special popular vote.The people did not vote directly on the document itself. Rather, they chose delegates to special ratifying conventions. The National Archives provides more detail:
On September 17, 1787, a majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved the documents over which they had labored since May. After a farewell banquet, delegates swiftly returned to their homes to organize support, most for but some against the proposed charter. Before the Constitution could become the law of the land, it would have to withstand public scrutiny and debate. The document was "laid before the United States in Congress assembled" on September 20. For 2 days, September 26 and 27, Congress debated whether to censure the delegates to the Constitutional Convention for exceeding their authority by creating a new form of government instead of simply revising the Articles of Confederation. They decided to drop the matter. Instead, on September 28, Congress directed the state legislatures to call ratification conventions in each state. Article VII stipulated that nine states had to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect.
Beyond the legal requirements for ratification, the state conventions fulfilled other purposes. The Constitution had been produced in strictest secrecy during the Philadelphia convention. The ratifying conventions served the necessary function of informing the public of the provisions of the proposed new government. They also served as forums for proponents and opponents to articulate their ideas before the citizenry. Significantly, state conventions, not Congress, were the agents of ratification. This approach insured that the Constitution's authority came from representatives of the people specifically elected for the purpose of approving or disapproving the charter, resulting in a more accurate reflection of the will of the electorate. Also, by bypassing debate in the state legislatures, the Constitution avoided disabling amendments that states, jealous of yielding authority to a national government, would likely have attached.Over the weekend, I watched Seven Days in May for the nth time. A nice bit of dialogue from Rod Serling's script:
President Jordan Lyman: I know what Scott's attitude on the treaty is, what's yours?
Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey: I agree with General Scott, sir. I think we're being played for suckers. I think it's really your business. Yours and the Senate. You did it, and they agreed so, well, I don't see how we in the military can question it. I mean we can question it, but we can't fight it. We shouldn't, anyway.
President Jordan Lyman: Jiggs, isn't it? Isn't that what they call you?
Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey: Yes sir.
President Jordan Lyman: So you, ah, you stand by the Constitution, Jiggs?
Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey: I never thought of it just like that, Mr. President, but, well, that's what we got and I guess it's worked pretty well so far. I sure don't want to be the one to say we ought to change it.
President Jordan Lyman: Neither do I.