On Sept. 17, the nation will celebrate Constitution Day, commemorating the day our Founding Fathers signed the U.S. Constitution, thereby creating a document laying the foundation for our government for the last 230 years. While the entire week of Sept. 17-23 is recognized as Constitution Week, there are those among us who choose to celebrate this longest-continually used constitution in the history of the world for the entire month. A frequently unknown fact is that Sept. 17 is also Citizenship Day, a recognition of rights and responsibilities.
Yes, Constitution Day is exciting, but how does its commemoration connect with local history? Today, we'll examine the background and significance of the U.S. Constitution and how its design was influenced by regional representatives. Next week, we'll focus on the first criminal case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, originating from Chattanooga.
When the Declaration Committee of the Second Continental Congress chose to draft a Declaration of Independence, it began a tradition of written documents defining intent and purpose. Many of us forget that the English do not have a written constitution; their government operates on a system rooted in common law, based primarily on the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. Jefferson, in writing for the Committee, succinctly identified the reasons for the separation from the English government and created a precedent for written governing documents.
After waging war against the British army from 1776 to 1781, an official treaty, the Peace of Paris, was not signed until 1783. The treaty recognized the independence of the colonies and extended the boundaries of the new nation to include all the land east of the Mississippi River, doubling the available land for expansion. Settlers were already in Eastern Tennessee before the treaty, in direct violation of the Proclamation of 1763, which limited settlement to east of the Appalachian Mountains, and many local citizens today trace ancestry in this region during the late 18th century.
After independence, elected delegates from each of the 13 colonies chose to create a government that would emphasize individual and state rights, authoring the Articles of Confederation. In less than a decade, it was apparent that the Articles were a failure in governance, and a new convention was called. William Blount, a future Tennessean credited as the "Father" of the state, represented Western North Carolina during the Constitutional Convention and was noted as "a character strongly marked for integrity and honor ... He is plain, honest and sincere."
The delegates set about designing a republic, a representative democracy with a balance of power, not only among the three branches of government, but a federalist system, with power shared between the central and state governments. Thankfully, James Madison recorded every debate during the Constitutional Convention, with his only stipulation being that his notes not be published until after the death of the last delegate. Ironically, he would be the last delegate to die. Constitutional scholars still access his copious notes.
What issues were considered most important to the citizens living on the western frontier?
First, because of distance from the national capital, local residents were concerned about the organization of the government. The government was designed with Congress, the most powerful branch of government, dominated by the House of Representatives. Local voters would certainly know more about the candidates for the House than those campaigning for the presidency.
For those who farmed, traded or were just beginning careers in law, medicine, etc., where cash was limited, the concept of taxation loomed large. Even when Tennessee joined the Union as the 16th state on June 1, 1796, most citizens still remembered the "taxation without representation" cry which had spurred the revolution. Because of that concern, Article I clearly stated that all revenue bills must originate in the House of Representatives.
Finally, the Southern delegates, often of Scots-Irish origins, provided strong voices in favor of a written Bill of Rights, rightly fearful that a strong centralized government might in future situations choose expediency over individual rights. Their support of George Mason's campaign resulted in the addition of the first 10 amendments to our constitution.
It's easy to think about our U.S. Constitution and imagine that it was created by the delegates from politically powerful states such as Massachusetts and Virginia but, in truth, William Blount and others representing those on the frontier were advocates for a government strong enough to provide national defense and address domestic concerns without trampling on the inherent rights of the people.
Ring your bell on Constitution Day.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, is a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.