21 Things You May Not Know About the U.S. Constitution

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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.

Independence Hall
Eric Baradat, AFP/Getty Images

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.

Articles of Confederation
The U.S. National Archives (Articles of Confederation), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Continental Army
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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.

Franklin's Sedan Chair
Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Painting of a farmer
Winslow Homer, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

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.

Drawing of the Electoral College
The Electoral Commission holding a secret session by candle-light, on the Louisiana question, February 16th
Library of Congress

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.

Constitution Scroll
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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.

Constitution being rolled out on the steps
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

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.

portrait of Patrick Henry
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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.

Rhode Island Revolution Memorial
Eva Hambach, AFP/Getty Images

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.

Bill of Rights
The U.S. National Archives (The U.S. Bill of Rights), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Washington Thanksgiving Proclamation
Timothy Clary, AFP/Getty Images

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.

portrait of John Tyler
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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).

George W. Bush leaves for Colonoscopy
Stefan Zaklin, Getty Images

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.

Colorful map of the U.S.A.
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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.

Prison Laborer mowing a lawn
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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.

Congress in session
Alex Wong, Getty Images

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.

Pirate Ship on the ocean
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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.

First Amendment engraved on a stone
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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.

Democracy/Dictatorship Street Sign
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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.

Amending an Amendment
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

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Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1532, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. Niccolò Machiavelli had a front-row seat to Renaissance power struggles.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince to regain his lost status.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. Niccolò Machiavelli compared the need for love to the value of fear.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. The Prince’s ruthlessness made it notorious. 

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Niccolò Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. Shakespeare called villains Machiavels.

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. The Prince was banned by the pope.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul IV established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. Niccolò Machiavelli collaborated with Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. Niccolò Machiavelli actually believed in a just government.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

This article was originally published in 2018.

8 Things You Might Not Know About Warren G. Harding

Twenty-ninth president Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was two years into his first term when a (probable) heart attack put an abrupt end to both his life and his presidency. (Vice-president Calvin Coolidge stepped in and was then elected in 1924.) But just because his time as president was brief doesn't mean Harding isn’t deserving of closer examination. Take a look at some facts about his upbringing, his office controversies, and how a big family secret was revealed nearly a century after his death.

  1. Warren G. Harding was a newspaper reporter before he was a politician.

Warren G. Harding was born in a farming community near Blooming Grove, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. He was the oldest of eight children. Raised on physical labor, he displayed an interest and aptitude for writing and journalism while in college, later performing a variety of tasks for the Marion Mirror, a Democratic-leaning newspaper that was in contrast to the Harding family’s Republican politics. In 1884, a competing paper, the Marion Daily Star, was put up for sale; some friends of Harding’s financed its acquisition and soon, Harding was running it as he saw fit. The paper’s popularity made Harding a name in his community—one that would eventually graduate to local, then national, politics. Yet he remained involved in the Star, never ceding his financial interest in the paper until two months before his death in August 1923.

  1. Warren G. Harding could get feisty.

Harding’s temperament was even-keeled during his political career, but that doesn't mean he was a pushover. While editing the Star, Harding was the target of personal attacks by the editor of a competing newspaper, the Independent. Eventually, he had his fill of the vitriol, and Harding exploded, telling the man he would “mop up the street” with him if the alleged slander didn’t stop ("and then," Harding continued, "I’ll go over and mop up your office with what remains").

  1. Harding's presidential nomination was a compromise.

Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899 before taking office as lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906. From 1915 to 1921, he served in the U.S. Senate. While Harding was well-liked, his candidacy was the result of a deadlock: Republicans couldn’t decide on a candidate, so Harding was chosen as a compromise. Along with running mate Coolidge, he defeated Democratic candidate James Cox by winning 60 percent of the popular vote and 76 percent of the Electoral College. Harding’s 1920 victory remains the largest popular vote margin since the 1820s.

  1. Harding got a celebrity endorsement when he ran for president.

Decades before actors and public figures openly endorsed presidential candidates, Harding’s campaign was the beneficiary of support from Al Jolson, the performer who was among the most popular entertainers of the 1920s. Jolson, a devoted Republican, agreed to visit Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio—where the candidate was making speeches from his front porch—and led a parade down the block. Jolson then sang “Harding You’re the Man for Us,” a hastily-prepared melody that cemented his backing of the politician. Actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford also made the trek to rally behind Harding.

  1. Warren G. Harding's presidency was marked by scandal.

Though Harding himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing, his cabinet was embroiled in controversy. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased public land to oil companies in exchange for gifts in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He spent a little under a year in prison. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was accused of selling liquor permits during Prohibition. Several other officials took bribes. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding once said. “But my damn friends ... they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.”

  1. Harding named his penis "Jerry."

Harding married his wife Florence in 1891, but he was far from faithful: He had two affairs that we know of. In 2014, letters between Harding and one of his mistresses that had been sealed for 50 years were finally released by the Library of Congress. In them, Harding expressed his affection for his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Written on official Senate stationary, the letters, dated between 1910 and 1920, offer a glimpse into his proclivities. He referred to his penis as “Jerry,” a code word in case a third party read the correspondence, and elaborated on his fantasies involving her “pillowing breasts.” An example:

"Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all."

When he won the Republication nomination in 1920, the party allegedly paid Phillips as much as $25,000 (or $297,000 today) to remain quiet about the affair.

  1. His Prohibition stance didn't keep him from drinking.

As a senator, Harding supported the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and transportation of alcohol, an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. He agreed to back the Anti-Saloon League, which rallied against imbibing, in exchange for support during his elections. But according to long-time White House employee Elizabeth Jaffray, with his friends Harding had no problem downing scotch and soda in the White House.

  1. The Harding DNA unlocked a family secret.

Nearly a century following Harding’s sudden death due to a heart attack in August 1923, a DNA test added another bit of salacious detail to the president’s sex life. In 1927, one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, claimed Harding fathered her child a year before his Presidential campaign. Harding’s political allies chastised her and cast doubts over her credibility, but in 2015, DNA sampled from relatives of Harding and Britton’s grandson confirmed she was telling the truth. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, died in 2005. She was Harding’s only child.

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