21 Things You May Not Know About the U.S. Constitution
By Lucas Reilly
The Constitution of the United States is only 4543 words—7762 if you count the Amendments—and originally fit on just four large sheets of paper. But it packs a wallop. Not only is it the oldest written national constitution in the world, it's arguably the most influential in the world, too.
1. MAKING THE CONSTITUTION WAS A SWEATY, SMELLY AFFAIR.
The Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 over the course of a humid summer. The windows of Independence Hall were shut to discourage eavesdroppers, and many delegates, who were mostly from out of town, wore and re-wore the same thick woolen garments day after day. Many framers stayed at the same boarding houses and shared rooms that, we can only imagine, reeked with a distinct eau du freedom.
2. THE INTENT WAS NOT TO CREATE A NEW CONSTITUTION.
The delegates didn't come to Philadelphia intending to write a new constitution—they came to tweak the Articles of Confederation, the original constitution written in 1777 (and later ratified in 1781). But after some deliberation, the attendees realized that the Articles were a mess and needed to be scrapped. One of the primary motivations for starting from scratch was money: At the time, the central government was mired in debt from the Revolutionary War. While the federal government could request money from the states, states were under no obligation to pay. A new constitution could change this.
3. SOME FRAMERS WANTED TO LIMIT THE SIZE OF THE ARMY.
According to Jonathan Elliot's Debates, Elbridge Gerry was concerned that "there was no check here against standing armies in time of peace" and proposed that "there should not be kept up in time of peace more than __ thousand troops" (with Elliot saying Gerry wanted the blank filled with two or three). According to ConstitutionFacts [PDF], "George Washington sarcastically agreed with this proposal as long as a stipulation was added that no invading army could number more than 3000 troops!"
4. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HAD TO BE CARRIED TO THE CONVENTION.
At the time, an 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin was in awful pain. He had gout and could barely stand. Instead of walking, he arrived at Independence Hall on at least the first couple of days carried by four prisoners from the Walnut Street jail, who ferried him around the city in a sedan chair.
5. AMERICA'S FARMERS WERE WOEFULLY MISREPRESENTED.
Of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, 34 were lawyers. Nearly all of them had previously held some kind of public office. This, of course, did not reflect the American electorate, a country of farmers: While 22 out of the 55 derived the majority of their income from farming, only one delegate, Georgia's William Few, in any way represented farmer's interests, having been born into a yeoman farming family. But even Few was a lawyer and politician by this time.
6. THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE MAY HAVE BEEN JUST AS CONTROVERSIAL THEN AS IT IS NOW.
It took 60 separate ballots for the delegates to finally accept the Electoral College. Proponents believed it was the best compromise between those who wanted to choose the president via direct popular vote and those who wanted a Congressional vote. Since then, there have been more than 500 propositions to reform or eliminate the Electoral College.
7. WRITING IT COST $30.
You know names like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but let's give credit to two lesser known—but equally important—figures: Gouverneur Morris I, who wrote the Preamble to the Constitution and is responsible for much of the document's wording; and Jacob Shallus, the Pennsylvania General Assembly assistant clerk who actually held the pen. (Shallus was paid $30—about $900 today—for lending his penmanship.)
8. IT'S RIDDLED WITH PECULIAR SPELLINGS.
When the Constitution was written, English spellings had not yet been standardized. As a result, the document contains odd spellings, British spellings, and peculiar words that might look odd today but were acceptable at the time. In the list of signatories, the word Pennsylvania is missing an "n." In Article 1 Section 10, there's an errant apostrophe attached to what should be its. There are spellings such as defence or labour and even "chuse" for choose.
9. NOT EVERY FOUNDING FATHER SIGNED IT.
Thomas Jefferson never signed the Constitution because he was busy serving as the Minister to France in Paris. John Adams, who was serving as Minister to Great Britain, never signed it either. A handful of founding fathers, such as George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph were present for the signing but refused to touch the document. Others such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and John Hancock—whose signature was such a standout on the Declaration of Independence—simply did not attend. (When Henry was asked why he declined to attend the convention, he supposedly said, "I smelt a rat.")
10. RHODE ISLAND HATED THE CONSTITUTION SO MUCH IT ALMOST STARTED A CIVIL WAR.
Eleven of 13 states ratified the Constitution in the months after signing, and North Carolina finally signed in November 1789. That left Rhode Island—which never sent a delegate to the Constitutional Convention—as the last holdout. The state opposed a strong central government and had to make 11 attempts to ratify the Constitution. (Some votes weren't even close: One popular referendum finished with 237 votes "for" and 2945 votes "against.") The vitriol was so intense that, when a group of Rhode Island federalists began planning an ox roast to celebrate the document in 1788, an army of 1000 angry armed men assembled to stop it. The event nearly sparked a civil war.
11. THE FIRST AMENDMENT WAS ORIGINALLY THIRD.
When the Bill of Rights was drafted, James Madison proposed 19 amendments (the House sent 17 of them to the Senate, which were consolidated into the 12 amendments that went to the states). The first two, however, were not ratified immediately. The first amendment set "out a detailed formula for the number of House members, based on each decennial census," writes Andrew Glass at Politico. "Scholars have calculated that had the amendment, which is still pending, been adopted, today's House would have either 800 or 5000 representatives." (It currently has 435.) The second amendment regulated Congressional compensation. That amendment was not ratified for another 203 years: Originally the second, it became the 27th amendment.
12. THE FIRST NATIONAL THANKSGIVING WAS ESTABLISHED LARGELY TO THANK GOD FOR THE NEW CONSTITUTION.
In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation calling for "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." The date was set for Thursday, November 26, 1789.
13. FOR DECADES, IT WAS UNCLEAR IF THE VICE PRESIDENT WAS SUPPOSED TO SUCCEED THE PRESIDENT.
According to Article II, Section 1: "In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President." While this section states that the Vice President inherits the powers and duties of the presidency, it does not state that he or she should assume the office of the presidency itself (one 19th century Senator made the analogy "If a colonel was shot in battle, the next officer in rank took command of the regiment, but he did not thereby become a colonel"). But when President William Henry Harrison became the first president to die while in office in 1841, Vice President John Tyler began referring to himself as the President, and the convention stuck. However, this succession wasn't made official until 1967 when the 25th Amendment was ratified.
14. THE 25TH AMENDMENT HAS BEEN INVOKED THREE(ISH) TIMES (ALL FOR COLON TREATMENTS).
Section 3 of the 25th Amendment allows the President to hand power over to the Vice President if he feels "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." President George W. Bush invoked the amendment twice—making Dick Cheney "Acting President"—while he was undergoing colonoscopies.
But when President Ronald Reagan had polyps removed from his colon in 1985, he and his legal team were unclear about the amendment's "application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity" and did not officially invoke it. However, his staff still followed all the rules precisely in order to temporarily hand his duties to George H.W. Bush, meaning most agree that he did essentially invoke Section 3.
15. THE CONSTITUTION PROHIBITS STATES FROM CHANGING THE STRUCTURE OF THEIR GOVERNMENT.
According to Article IV, Section 4, also called the Guarantee Clause, the "United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." In other words, if a state ever attempted to radically change its structure of government—if Vermont wanted to become a monarchy, or if Oklahoma decided to give feudalism a test drive, or if Delaware changed to a full-blown dictatorship—these changes would be considered unconstitutional.
16. THE 13TH AMENDMENT HAS A CONTROVERSIAL CLAUSE.
The 13th amendment, ratified after the Civil War in 1865, states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." This middle clause has stoked controversy. Currently, the average daily minimum wage of an incarcerated worker is $0.86. Some states pay prisoners nothing at all for non-industry work.
17. YOU DON'T ALWAYS KNOW HOW YOUR CONGRESSPERSON VOTES.
According to Article I, Section 5, a roll call vote needs to happen when only one-fifth of those present for the vote request it (a roll call vote records each congressperson's name and vote, while a voice vote does not record names or number of votes). True anonymous voting, of course, is very rare, and common practice is for politicians to keep their constituents informed on their voting record.
18. THANKS TO THE CONSTITUTION, YOU COULD BECOME A STATE-SANCTIONED PIRATE.
Article I, Section 8 gives the government the authority "to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas." It also allows the government to grant letters of marque—that is, to grant people permission to become privateers. Such a license could allow you to capture, steal, or spy on ships of America's foreign enemies! (Unfortunately, the fantastic rumor that the Goodyear Blimp received a letter of marque during World War II to hunt Japanese submarines off California is not true.)
19. MUCH OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS DIDN'T APPLY TO THE STATES UNTIL THE MID-20TH CENTURY.
When the Bill of Rights was adopted, it only applied to the federal government. The part of the Fifth Amendment, for example, which prevents the federal government from convicting a person twice for the same crime (what's called double jeopardy), was only enforceable in some states until 1969. As Richard Labunski writes in the Chicago Tribune, it took a long time for nearly every other amendment to apply to states: "freedom of speech (1925), freedom of the press (1931), freedom of religion (1947) … the right to a jury trial (1968) … and prohibition against excessive bail (1971)."
20. THE CONSTITUTION SUPPOSEDLY CONTAINS A LOOPHOLE THAT COULD ALLOW A DICTATORSHIP TO FLOURISH.
In the 1940s, European intellectuals fled Europe for America. Kurt Gödel, an Austrian philosopher, was among the refugees. During Gödel's citizenship interview, he casually mentioned to the immigration official that he had discovered a loophole in the Constitution that could open a pathway for a dictator. However, he never explained what that pathway was. (Some believe that Gödel's loophole has something to do with Article V, which lays out how the Constitution can be amended. Technically, if Article V was used on itself—that is, if it were amended to make changing the Constitution easier—the entire document could be easily rewritten.)
21. THE CHANCE OF AN AMENDMENT PASSING IS BASICALLY ZERO.
The chance of Article V being changed, however, is slim. Over the past two centuries, more than 11,600 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed. Of those, only 33 have been sent to the states for ratification. Of those, only 27 have been approved. Rounded down, the percent chance of getting an amendment passed is, in fact, zero.