Who Are the Potters of the Constitutional Clay?

“We the People of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
How did “We the People” do this? The story begins after the Constitutional Convention concluded. The text, shortly after its completion, was published in local newspapers for everyone in the country to read – from Rhode Island to Georgia. Newspapers, to grab the attention of the reader, usually put the Preamble in larger type. The words leaped off the page as if crying out to every American – READ ME! I always wonder what ordinary Americans thought when they first saw the words, We the People. “That’s me, right there on the front page!” Ordinary people mattered, they made front page news, and that was unique in human history! Americans, from that day forward, with a new sense of individual dignity, from all walks of life, in homes, neighborhood gatherings, and town-halls read and discussed the merits of the document, and then, in accord with Article Seven of the Constitution, they voted to ratify through democratically chosen state conventions.

The field of convention delegates to choose from was a novelty, too. The states had property restrictions in place for those who served in their respective houses, but they lowered these when it came to qualifications for convention delegates – thus widening the field of choice. In other words, Americans took the words “We the People” seriously when it came to ordaining the Constitution. Imagine a person serving as a Convention delegate discussing and approving a national form of government which would alter the state government which had previously excluded him from its counsels!

“A people, free and enlightened,” boasted James Wilson, “ESTABLISHING and RATIFYING a system of government, which they have previously CONSIDERED, EXAMINED and APPROVED! — This is the spectacle, which we are assembled to celebrate; and it is the most dignified one that has yet appeared on our globe…You have heard of SPARTA, of ATHENS, and of ROME. You have heard of their admired constitutions and of their high prized freedom…But did they, in all their pomp and pride of liberty, ever furnish to the astonished world an exhibition similar to that, which we now contemplate? Were their constitutions framed by those who were appointed, for that purpose, by the people? After they were framed, were they submitted to the consideration of the people? Had the people an opportunity of expressing their sentiments concerning them? Were they to stand or fall by the people’s approving or rejecting vote?”

The answers to Wilson’s questions are NO! In America, We The People are the Sovereigns; we bring the Constitution into existence by our fiat, and we alter it as we see fit. We The People created and amended the Constitution in our image, and we can change it again any time we see fit.

Indeed, Women and Slaves couldn’t vote at this time, but some these national “sins” would be atoned for in the Amendments. We must remember when we make sweeping, and dare I say, sometimes arrogant condemnations of our forefathers, that universal suffrage existed nowhere before 1787. When we consider the times, we must conclude that the original Constitution was a great beginning in this respect, and we should give the Founders full credit for their bold move. Later Americans, as the Founders wished, would improve their original work by more faithfully and widely applying the Democratic principles of the Preamble to include those who were excluded in 1789.

“This Constitution,” said James Wilson, “is laid before the citizens of the United States… By their fiat, it will become of value and authority.” And the people said, “Let there be a Constitution, and there was a Constitution.” That goes for the Amendments, too. We’ve never ceased to be the potters of our Constitutional clay.

This post is the second installment (lesson 2) of the series “Through the Constitution“ with Daniel Sheridan.  For more posts on the U.S. Constitution, please visit the “Know the Constitution” category of our website.