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September 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor

Two constitutional conventions
that aimed to change the world

by John Avlon

From spring into summer the delegates met, suffering through apparently endless setbacks and angry speeches. Some key leaders refused to participate in the debate, as did one entire state. Division and delay was the order of the day, as warring factions fought over minority rights, the balance of power, and the influence of religion on the revolutionary young nation's constitution. Some critics predicted that the compromise would be rejected by the people before ratification; others said that it would lead toward outright civil war.

This was not Iraq 2005, but Philadelphia 1787. And despite all the doubt and pain of the four-month process, a Constitution was created that ultimately changed the world.

None of it was easy.

The nervous hand-wringing that accompanied the delay to the Iraqi constitutional convention lacked any sense of perspective. The perfect should not be made the enemy of the good

Our own history shows that the creation of a new constitution can be a difficult and often tortuous process.

The Philadelphia experience

Even four years after the end of the War for Independence, the 13 colonies were far more divided than united. Armed rebellions broke out that had to be put down by the fledging militia, and former officers of the continental army plotted a coup to protest their absent pensions. The economy was unsteady, with rampant inflation. No less a national leader than George Washington described the country as having "a half-starved, limping government that appears always to be moving upon crutches, and tottering at every step."

But even amid chaos, national heroes such as Virginia's Patrick Henry - whose cry of "Give me liberty or give me death" helped inspire the revolution - refused to attend the convention, saying less eloquently that he "smelt a rat." Rhode Island, concerned that increased federal power would overwhelm its small state, refused to send any delegates in pre-emptive protest. Some participants worried that the creation of an office of president contained "the fetus of monarchy."

As Washington, Benjamin Franklin, 36-year-old James Madison and 30-year-old Alexander Hamilton urged delegates to accept the necessary spirit of compromise, other powerful figures such as New York Governor George Clinton worked not so subtly behind the scenes to protect their own interests and derail the process.

Even after the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention was successfully concluded on September 17, 1787, the hard work of selling the document to the American people was just beginning. We loftily remember the civic discourse of the Federalist Papers and the drafting of the Bill of Rights, but often forget the three years of harsh partisan debate that occurred before it was endorsed by each state.

The country was polarized by ratification; spurring the creation of two warring political parties (much to Washington's dismay), the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The country was also split between the urban and rural vote. City residents tended to support the Constitution, while farmers and frontiersman opposed it.

The first states to ratify the Constitution - Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey - quickly fell into line. But it took months for Massachusetts to sign on. New Hampshire's support was so doubtful that its vote on ratification was delayed from February to June, as "an expedient to prevent rejection," according to Madison. Two of the most influential states, Virginia and New York, were among the last states to sign, and it was not until May 1790 that Rhode Island reluctantly voted to endorse the Constitution by a two-vote margin.

Implications for Iraq

Such a tortuous timeline makes Iraq's one year goal for agreeing to and ratifying a new constitution seem positively - and perhaps naively - ambitious. Naysayers who insist that all the important issues facing the first Arab democracy must be dealt with completely in this document are not being realistic.

In order to forge compromise, America's founders declined to deal with our original sin of slavery, punting it for succeeding generations to address. This perhaps made civil war inevitable, but only by that time were our civic institutions strong enough to survive such a fight.

Likewise, as we judge Iraqi efforts to incorporate women's rights into a religious culture unaccustomed to such modern innovations, we would do well to remember that women in America were denied the right to vote until a constitutional amendment the 1920s. This was less than ideal, but we were still a democracy and a comparative beacon of freedom to the world.

Concerns about the intended influence of Islamic law on the Iraqi constitution may prove well founded (hasn't anyone in that part of the world heard of separation of church and state?), but Islamic democracy is a work in progress.

Paralysis of PC analysis

Now the process of ratification for the Iraqi constitution has begun, with a nationwide referendum scheduled for October 15. This process will surely be fraught with complications. But Iraqi democracy, struggling to be born in an inhospitable part of the world, does not have the luxury of a search for perfection that leads to paralysis.

In a time of high-stakes transition, doubt cannot be allowed to be in the driver's seat. We must believe that patience and persistence will lead to progress, as it did in our case, when success was far from certain.

That constancy of purpose led Benjamin Franklin to reflect on how during the difficult days of the Constitutional Convention, he would stare at the half sun painted on the back of a chair in the room and wonder whether it was an omen of dawn or dusk for the republic. "Now," Franklin said, "I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not a setting sun."


John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001.  He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).


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