September 17 is designated by federal statute as Constitution Day in commemoration of the official signing of the document at the close of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The law further mandates that all colleges and universities receiving federal funds must observe this day by holding an educational program or event focused on the Constitution.
There is, of course, special reason for us at the University of Virginia to take this charge seriously. James Madison — the co-founder of this institution along with Thomas Jefferson, and the university’s first rector — is widely considered to be the “father” of the Constitution. Madison designed the first working plan submitted at the Constitutional Convention (the Virginia Plan), played a leading role throughout the whole summer in the debates, kept a record of the proceedings of the convention (“Madison’s Notes”) and wrote some of the greatest explanatory commentaries on the Constitution in The Federalist Papers.
One could add that he was also the principal author of the Bill of Rights.
Most people today fail to recognize what a great innovation it was for a nation to adopt and be governed by a written constitution. No other political order anywhere or at any time had tried or succeeded in sketching its form of government by an actual law that subsequently could be consulted by the public and by members of the judiciary.
The precedents here were the American state constitutions. As Thomas Jefferson observed in a letter to his friend John Cartwright in 1824: “Virginia, of which I am myself a native and resident, was not only the first of the States, but, I believe I may say, the first of the nations of the earth, which assembled its wise men peaceably together to form a fundamental constitution, to commit it to writing, and place it among their archives, where every one should be free to appeal to its text.”
Historians of constitutionalism may dispute whether South Carolina, rather than Virginia, was actually first, but the claim about a written constitution being first devised in America seems sound.
The apparently simple discovery of a written constitution contained within it a revolution in the theory of governing. It meant that the government itself, including all of its officials, was now conceived to operate under a supreme law, a law that could be read and understood by all citizens. Few ideas have done more to humble government, reminding its leaders that they are not sovereign, but subject to a greater authority.
Another effect was in the promotion of popular government. The spirit of any government is often fixed by its first acts. Had the Constitution been somehow imposed from on high rather than ratified under a process that, for its time, was remarkably democratic, it is questionable how quickly America would have evolved into a democratic state.
While Madison and Jefferson both believed that the Constitution was a remarkable achievement, Madison expressed more concern than his friend about the fragility of this experiment in self-government. In a well-known exchange of letters, Madison criticized Jefferson’s proposal that the Constitution be revised every 19 years. Such frequent revisions, argued Madison, would undermine the authority of a written constitution, which was enhanced by the “prejudices…which antiquity inspires.”
The Constitution has endured for 225 years with a remarkably small number of amendments — 27 in all, and just 17 since the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791. It has no doubt been sustained in part by simple habit and by the sentiment that it is one of the great symbols of national unity.
Yet whenever citizens take the time to reflect on its content, as they are encouraged to do on Constitution Day, they generally come away in deep admiration of its basic plan for placing limits on political authority and for allotting power among the three branches of the government. The Constitution has earned its longevity.
James Ceaser is the Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.