There has been some significant debate recently over the idea of “American Exceptionalism”. Some argue that it’s reality, while others say it’s a bunch of hooey. What is it? Well, I’m probably the wrong guy to be defining obtuse nine-syllable phrases, but here goes my best attempt. American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is a special country (something of a one-of-a-kind nation), due to the nature of its founding, its rather unique form of government, and the success it has achieved.
Needless to say, some people argue from a different perspective. They contend that American Exceptionalism is, in the best case, extreme jingoism…a self-exalted view that arrogantly puts America on a higher plane than other countries. In the worst case, opponents of the concept say that this attitude is what permitted the scourge of slavery until the 1860s, allowed gross mistreatment of numerous Native American tribes, and continues to foster American imperialism around the world.
I happen to think that many things about the creation of this country were exceptional, and its likely that Today’s History Lesson has covered several of them. And I think our topic for today may fit the mold as well.
On September 8, 1787, the Committee of Style and Arrangement was formed. Hmm…not that exceptional? I disagree.
If you look back over the last four months, you’ll find we’ve shared a handful of articles focused on the Constitutional Convention. And what you’ll discover is that, far from being in agreement on anything, a great many of the delegates fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the creation of a new government. Men like Luther Martin, Gunning Bedford, and John Lansing argued vociferously against changing the status quo…against that pesky concept of innovation.
In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen writes that, “In spite of disagreement, indecision, threats of withdrawal and articles not settled, the Convention was ready to put the Constitution into final form and present it to the country.” Was the Constitution being ram-rodded through? Absolutely not!! Hundreds of years ago, Sir Francis Bacon said, “Let the losers have their words.” And those who were against the various articles (and against the whole proceeding in general) more than had their say. It’s part of what made (and what continues to make) the Constitution so powerful.
The Committee of Style was tasked with collecting all the documentation and putting it into a cohesive, easily-read document. Five men comprised the committee, and their names read much like a Founding Fathers All-Star team.
James Madison, who would spend the rest of his life defending what the Committee created, and is known as the Father of the Constitution.
William Samuel Johnson, a quiet strength from the South who hadn’t missed a single day of the proceedings.
Gouverneur Morris, who spoke more during the Convention than anyone else, but also had the fortitude to publicly admit when he was wrong. It was his hand that penned our Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton. Bowen writes, “…his speech of June eighteenth had not been forgotten, with its monarchical slant; yet delegates knew his grasp of the situation, knew also that his pen was quick and eloquent; nobody could say better what he wanted to say about the constitution of governments.” He, along with Madison, would spill an enormous amount of ink defending what was about to be created.
And finally, Rufus King. He had arrived in Philadelphia full of doubt, believing that the Congress under the Confederacy should take up changing the Confederacy. But over the course of the Convention, he became a staunch supporter…and converts are always strong believers.
These men penned a letter (also written by Morris) to accompany the final document, and its words are timeless, too. “It is obviously impractical in the foederal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all. Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on siuation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved…”
Exceptional? I think so. Bowen summarizes in agreement with me. “The wonder is that twelve states got through months of discussion without disbanding, and that the Committee of Style could now go on with their task unhampered.”
And for five days, these five men would work. They condensed, they word-smithed, and they debated amongst themselves over language and detail. And in the end…well, let’s cover that when the time is right. But I’ll give you a hint…it begins with three remarkable (dare I say “exceptional”?) words…“We the people…”
Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia