Work of Founding Fathers is still relevant

November 16, 2007|By LISA PREJEAN

Which document contains the main set of laws for the United States:

The Declaration of Independence or The United States Constitution?

If you think about the words in the titles of the two documents, you will find some clues.

The Declaration of Independence declares, which means to state or announce openly, our country's independence, freedom from influence, control or determination of others.

A constitution is the act of setting up or making up something; an establishment, an appointment, or a formation. In terms of the United States Constitution, it is a document setting up a new government for states that wanted to be united ? combined, joined or made one.

If you're setting up something, you need to decide how it's going to run.

Such was the case with our Founding Fathers. When they wrote the U.S. Constitution, they were writing a document that would contain the main set of laws for a new country.


They hoped they would be able to agree on what that new country would be like.

Who were these writers of the Constitution?

The Constitution was written by a group of 55 delegates who were sent to Philadelphia to represent the interests of each of the 13 colonies.

Many of the delegates' names are familiar.

At age 81, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate. He has been described as the peacemaker of the convention. When Alexander Hamilton suggested that a president serve a life term, it was Franklin who noted that might not be a good idea. What if the president was not a good president? What could Americans do to get rid of him? He suggested term limits as a way of being kind to bad politicians. Otherwise, they might be shot. (How's that for keeping the peace?)

The delegates chose George Washington to be president of the meeting. Even though he did not want to become involved in politics, Washington agreed to serve because he wanted to show loyalty to the new government.

While Thomas Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, he was in France when the Constitution was written.

James Madison is credited with being the "Father of the Constitution." He took notes while other delegates were talking, keeping a record of what was said during the four months of meetings that took place in 1787.

The delegates did not intend to come up with a Constitution. Their purpose for meeting was to revise the Articles of Confederation, a form of government that was not working.

Madison and Virginia Gov. Edmund Randolph proposed a model similar to the Virginia Plan, a form of government that would have three branches ? executive, legislative and judicial.

The three branches would provide a system of checks and balances so that no one branch would have too much power.

There were some things that were hard to decide. When considering how the head of the executive branch, or president, should be chosen, the delegates had to vote 60 times before they made a decision.

They debated whether the president should receive a salary. Madison said that they shouldn't count on patriotism. (Wasn't he a smart man?)

What about members of the legislative branch? Could these lawmakers be foreign-born?

Gouverneur Morris pointed out that it took a shoemaker apprentice seven years to learn how to make shoes, so it should take at least twice that long for a lawmaker to learn how to make laws. (That would give politicians today a good excuse for inactivity: "I'm sorry, I haven't been in office for 14 years. Don't quite know the tricks of the trade yet.")

After they finished writing the Constitution, the delegates realized they needed some guidelines on personal rights ? so they wrote the Bill of Rights, which grants the freedom of speech, religion and the right to bear arms, among other things.

It's truly amazing what those delegates accomplished in four months, and that their work is still the foundation for our government today.

Want to know more about the Constitution? Try taking the Constitution quiz at Also, check out the book, "Shh! We're Writing the Constitution," by Jean Fritz.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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