History throws up little coincidences that can bring you up short. The Associated Press “Today in History” feature for September 17 has offered this one.
On September 17, 1787, after a hot summer in Philadelphia, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, or most of them, adopted and signed the Constitution of the United States.
In twelve hours on September 17, 1862, 23,000 men died on a battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Antietam remains the bloodiest day in the history of U.S. warfare, and the events that led to it were set in motion seventy-five years previously during that hot summer in Philadelphia.
The deadly bargain—you can read about it in Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution*—in the Constitution, the price of ratification, was the enshrining of slavery, along with the three-fifths clause that gave the slaveholding states disproportionate power. Without the document of 1787, there would have been no United States; with it, the conflict over slavery as the nation expanded became inevitable, and it took the deaths of more than 600,000 men to resolve it.
This is the sort of thing that those anodyne texts they use in the schools won’t touch, because they have to express the myth of our inevitable greatness without causing any offense to anyone. That is a pity, because our history is fascinating, and sometimes terrible, to contemplate, and we contrive to make it artificial and dull for the young.
*To digress, when you understand how diverse the views of the Framers were, how much their understanding of the document they crafted diverged, at the time and later, you must irresistibly speculate to what degree the doctrine of Original Intent is a mere fiction—that the constitutional opinions of conservatives are just as much shaped by personal political inclinations as those of the liberals they disparage.