Wednesday, September 7, 2005

A distinguished history

Guest opinion by Sen. Mike Crapo

Mike Crapo, a Republican, is the junior U.S. senator from Idaho.

On a chilly September day, in a 40-square-foot room in the Philadelphia State House, 52 highly educated men, ranging in age from 28 to 81, signed a document intended to create a unified country out of a hodge-podge of independent states. The well-known painting of the signing of the Constitution gives us a romantic view of that moment, but the reality was a little different, yet eerily familiar to those of us who stand in the shadows of those great men 218 years later.

Our Constitution was not created by unanimous agreement, dispassionate debate, or cheerful agreement. The Constitutional Convention was the scene of both bored doodling and fiery, organized opposition. Members spoke for entire days, only stopping from utter exhaustion. One member noted "fatigue and disgust" on the faces of many in the room after another spoke for two solid days. Committees were formed, alliances were forged, and compromises were arduously worked through. Secrecy was paramount: The members felt compelled to speak to the media only once, when a rumor emerged that the convention was forming a monarchy.

Details were of profound importance. According to historian and author Fred Barbash in his book "The Founding," in the final days members meticulously debated a semicolon in one section, the inclusion of which may have granted Congress the power to provide for the "General Welfare." The funding would not necessarily have to come from taxes, and may have indirectly authorized the establishment of a national bank, to the clear economic benefit of some members of the convention. It was removed in committee. The signing of the Constitution by the delegates signaled the beginning of a national debate which was concluded almost three years later, when Rhode Island joined the Union in May of 1780.

Endless hours of debate, frustrating filibusters, political maneuvering, deals done on the side, insults (delivered with utmost civility), threats made and retracted. It has a familiar sound, but for all its contentiousness, the process produced the greatest government system in the world—adaptable and successful for more than two centuries. The Constitution outlines a system which guarantees Americans basic principles of individual rights and freedoms, limited government, rule of law, sovereignty of the people, separation of powers, and representative government.

These principles to which we cling so passionately were born of discourse, conflicting ideas melded together in the forge of compromise, and respect for the opinions of others. Benjamin Franklin penned these words, delivered on Sept. 17, 1787: "For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies."

As we confront enemies who would seek to eliminate our freedom, take our lives, and dismantle our country through cowardly acts of terror, let us heed the wisdom of Mr. Franklin, and understand that the bitter debates, harsh words, and seemingly endless hours of stalemates that characterize our system of government are a critical part of preserving our freedoms. While the clash of ideas that occurs in America may seem burdensome and frustrating, a closer look at history reveals that at the end of the day, workable compromises surface from these debates. Solutions arise in which most all have played a part, and of which most have at least limited ownership. It is only when we stop debating and silence discourse that our freedoms and our rights vanish, and our enemies have won.

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