Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Why Do We Need a Constitution?

There was a long interval between the Battle of Yorktown, and the Treaty of Paris, three thousand stormy miles away. The British were in no hurry, and Washington dared not disband his army until a treaty was complete. So Washington holed up at Newburgh, NY with nothing to do but write letters to his friends, Even here, he acted as a General. Alexander Hamilton organized a group of letter-writers, to copy and improve upon his "Circular Letters" to his influential friends. Originally, the purpose was to hold the Army together while everyone waited, but over time the letters offered ideas for a new nation. Washington had eight years to watch how the Revolution progressed -- plenty of time to see how things might be improved. Somewhere along the way, he collected Hamilton and James Madison as young, ambitious, smart and loyal agents. Their ideas were welcome, but there was no question who was in charge. When the time came, George Washington presided over the meeting but said very little. He didn't need to.

Over two hundred years later, it is clear the American Constitution was so unique it was to be seen as the first written Constitution, and the only one to survive so long. Much imitated, it was singularly terse and to the point. Gouverneur Morris was a well-trained lawyer, and the only titled aristocrat among the founding fathers, so professional that no one has come forward to claim perjury or deviation from the client's intent. And yet this penman of the Constitution was to renounce his own product during the War of 1812. We see in retrospect that in spite of its brevity it has only been amended twenty-odd times, mostly to expand the voting franchise. Just what the real secret of success might have been, remains a mystery. The secret is so obscure most detractors are afraid to touch it. The Supreme Court, for example, is charged with deciding what it means, but with 9 times 80 opportunities a year to suggest improvements in 'the law" they rarely do so, even when it is clearly established the Court has a right to return legislation whenever it is "void for vagueness".


The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown Amazon

Originally published: Wednesday, August 07, 2019; most-recently modified: Thursday, August 29, 2019