Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution

Constitution Day is September 17th. That is the anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787. You might use this occasion to share A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution by Betsy and Giulio Maestro with the children in your life.

No story about the Constitution would be complete without a little of the history behind it. The book begins simply enough explaining how the thirteen colonies had declared independence from England, and that a war had been fought in which the colonies won their freedom.

But after 10 years, in 1787, things weren't going well - the thirteen states weren't working well together and weren't acting as one nation. The leaders of the country wanted to do something about it before things got even worse. It was decided that all the states would send representatives to Philadelphia to try to fix things.

Some delegates to this convention arrived early and started to share their ideas with one another. Many of them were already acquainted from working on the Declaration of Independence or fighting in the Revolutionary War. Some delegates were late - travel took a long time by horse or carriage, and the weather was terrible. The convention took place in the same building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. George Washington was selected to run the convention, and James Madison volunteered to record the meetings.

First, the Virginia Plan was presented. It was a surprise because it was proposing a new government instead of just fixing the old one. They voted and decided to create a new government.

Now the job of the convention would be to write a new constitution, a set of rules for forming a new government, and another set of rules for the new government to follow.

The small states didn't like the Virginia Plan because they would have no influence because they would be outnumbered by representatives from the big states. The small states made their own plan, the New Jersey Plan, where all the states would have an equal say, no matter how big they were. Most delegates voted against the New Jersey Plan. Then, the Connecticut delegates came up with another idea: some parts of the Virginia Plan, some parts of the New Jersey Plan, and some new ideas, too - the Connecticut Compromise.

After the Great Compromise, some delegates took a little vacation because it was very hot in Philadelphia. But, some of the delegates, the Committee of Detail, decided to keep working. They took the parts of the Connecticut Compromise and made a rough draft of a new constitution. When everyone was back, they discussed and debated and eventually "agreed on almost everything." Another group, the Committee of Style and Arrangement, would write a final draft, "making sure that every word was just right. At last, the Constitution was complete."

On September 15, the delegates voted to sign the new Constitution. Forty-two members were present, and only three did not agree to sign. Then the words were copied onto parchment, a very special kind of paper that last for a long time.

On Monday, September 17, 1787, the convention had its final meeting. Thirty-nine delegates signed the new Constitution. Some of the original fifty-five delegates had left the convention in anger because they did not approve of the new Constitution. Some others would have signed, but had to return home early.

The work wasn't finished yet. "The Constitution had to be ratified, or approved, in each state before it could become law. The delegates had to convince the people in their home states to vote for the new Constitution." At least nine states, or two-thirds, would have to agree to establish this new form of government.

Delaware was the first state to approve, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut. Then Massachusetts, then Maryland and South Carolina. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution. By May 1790, all thirteen states had agreed to the new Constitution.

A new Congress was elected, and it immediately went to work. Law courts were set up, and the new government seemed strong and sound.

But still some Americans were worried. They believed that certain important rights of the people were not protected under the Constitution. So, to ease these fears, Congress proposed some additions to the Constitution.

The first ten additions, or amendments, are known as the Bill of Rights. In part, they state that people have the right to say what they want, go where they want, and pray to God in the way they want, without fear that the government will stop them. The Bill of Rights has turned out to be a very important part of the Constitution. It protects people from losing the freedom that is so much a part of American life.

The end of the story explains how this American form of government "is the oldest set of rules for running a country still in use in the world. It created a government that has worked better and longer than any other in history." Also, the Founding Fathers wrote it "with the idea that the power of government should come from the people."

At the back of the book is a section titled Additional Information About the Constitution. Here you will find: the Preamble to the Constitution and summaries of the seven articles that make up with Constitution; the signers of the Constitution - exactly as they signed; important dates - from the First Continental Congress in 1774 through Virginia ratifying the Constitution in 1791; notes on the Connecticut Compromise; interesting facts about the convention and the delegates; order and dates of ratification; and finally, summaries for the twenty-six amendments to the Constitution.

While this book may not be some great work of literature, it clearly and simply explains how our nation came to be in its present form and would be a terrific resource to teach younger children about it (the book is recommended for children about 7 years old).

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