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

iStock
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
National Archives, Newsmakers/Getty Images

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.
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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.

That Time Hawaii Tried to Join the Japanese Empire

ShaneMyersPhoto/iStock via Getty Images
ShaneMyersPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Wandering around Hawaii, you might sometimes feel as if you’ve teleported, unaware, to a different archipelago across the Pacific. Cat figurines beckon from shop windows. Sashimi and bento boxes abound. Signs feature subtitles inscrutable to an English speaker. Hawaii’s ties with Japan are strong.

But they could have been much stronger, if 19th-century Hawaiian monarch King Kalākaua had gotten his way. In 1881, the island’s penultimate monarch hatched a secret plan to form a political alliance with Japan. Had his gambit succeeded, Hawaii would have fallen under the protection of Emperor Meiji's East Asian empire—keeping it out of the clutches of American imperialists bent on turning Hawaii into a U.S. state.

Though you might not know it today, Hawaii's relationship with Japan didn't begin on the best note. The first Japanese emigrants to relocate to Hawaii—other than a handful of hapless sailors—were about 150 sugar laborers in 1868. However, deceptive contracts and poor working conditions drove almost a third of those laborers to return home, and as a result, Japan ended up banning further emigration to Hawaii. The rocky start to formal labor relations between the two countries didn’t bode well for Hawaii, where a century of exposure to European diseases had already left the population a fraction of what it once was. If the island kingdom was to survive, culturally and economically, it would need an influx of new workers.

About a decade later, Hawaiian king David Kalākaua, who had been nurturing a serious case of wanderlust, decided that the labor shortage was important enough for him to leave his kingdom for the better part of a year. His council agreed, and on January 20, 1881, he set off on an around-the-world trip—a first for any world leader. He invited two friends from his school days to join him: Hawaii Attorney General William Nevins Armstrong, who would serve as commissioner of immigration, and Charles Hastings Judd, Kalākaua's private secretary, to manage logistics. A chef rounded out their party of four.

King Kalākaua seated with his aides standing next to him
Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After 10 days in California, the band steamed toward Japan. As a small group from a modest country, they had planned to keep a low profile, but the Japanese government insisted on giving them a royal welcome. Kalākaua and his crew enjoyed two weeks of sightseeing, fine dining, and diplomatic discussions related to trade and immigration.

While most negotiating took place as an ensemble, at some point, Kalākaua slipped away from his companions for a private audience with Emperor Meiji. Taking the emperor by surprise, he proposed an alliance that could have changed the course of Hawaiian, Japanese, and American history.

A marriage between his 5-year-old niece, Princess Victoria Ka'iulani, and the 15-year-old Japanese Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito, Kalākaua argued, would bring the two nations closer together. Kalākaua also suggested that the two leaders form a political union as well as a matrimonial one. Since Japan was the larger and more powerful country, Kalākaua suggested that Meiji lead his proposed Union and Federation of the Asiatic Nations and Sovereigns as its “promoter and chief.”

Kalākaua didn’t leave a written record of the trip, so exactly what kind of relationship he imagined Hawaii might have with Japan in his proposed federation remains unclear. But even if the details of the king’s plan are fuzzy, the potential implications weren't lost on his retinue. “Had the scheme been accepted by the emperor,” Armstrong later wrote in his account of the trip, “it would have tended to make Hawaii a Japanese colony."

Kalākaua kept his motivations for proposing this joining of the two nations from his entourage, but Armstrong later speculated the king had a “vague fear that the United States might in the near future absorb his kingdom.” The U.S. hadn’t taken any overt steps toward annexation yet, but American traders living in Hawaii yearned to stop paying taxes on international imports and exports—nearly all of which came from or went to the States—and so they favored becoming part of the U.S. Kalākaua, undoubtedly aware of their agitations, may very well have desired protection under Japan’s sphere of influence.

The Japanese emperor and prince took Kalākaua’s suggestions into consideration, but politely rejected both in later letters. Higashifushimi wrote that he was “very reluctantly compelled to decline” because of a previous engagement. And while Meiji expressed admiration for the federation idea, he wrote that he faced too many domestic challenges to take on an international leadership role. Armstrong, for his part, speculated that the emperor was also afraid of stepping on America’s toes by cozying up to such a close trading partner.

If Meiji had chosen differently, the next few decades, and the following century, could have played out very differently for Japan, Hawaii, and the United States. Armstrong, for one, immediately recognized how much the “unexpected and romantic incident” could have bent the arc of the kingdom’s history—and the world's. And Europe's reigning superpowers would not have been pleased. Japanese control of Hawaii would have been "a movement distasteful to all of the Great Powers,” Armstrong wrote.

An official portrait of King Kalākaua and his aides with Japanese officials.
King Kalākaua and his aides in Japan in 1881. Front row, left to right: Prince Higashifushimi, King Kalākaua, and Japanese finance minister Sano Tsunetami. Back row, left to right: Charles Hastings Judd, Japanese Finance Ministry official Tokunō Ryōsuke, and William Nevins Armstrong.
Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Kalākaua continued his circumnavigation, going on to visit China, Thailand, England, and a dozen other countries (including a stop in New York for a demonstration of electricity by Thomas Edison) before returning to Hawaii after 10 months abroad. While his bolder moves to poke the West in the eye with a Japanese alliance had fallen short, the main drive for his trip—alleviating the kingdom's labor shortage—ultimately proved a success. Thousands of Portuguese and Chinese emigrants moved to Hawaii the following year.

As for the Japanese, after years of negotiation, Japan lifted its ban on emigration to Hawaii in the mid 1880s. A guarantee of a higher minimum wage—$9 a month for men and $6 for women, up from $4 (about $240 and $160 a month today, respectively, up from $105)—and other benefits led to almost 1000 Japanese men, women, and children coming to Hawaii in February 1885. Almost 1000 more arrived later that year.

By 1900, booming immigration made the Japanese the largest ethnic group on the island chain, with more than 60,000 people representing almost 40 percent of the population. Hawaii had roughly doubled in size since Kalākaua's world tour.

Sadly for Kalākaua, by then his “vague fears” of U.S. imperialism had already come to pass. A group of wealthy, mostly white businessmen and landowners weakened, and eventually overthrew, Hawaii’s constitutional government, leading to annexation by the U.S. in 1898.

But that doesn't mean Kalākaua's trip didn't change the course of Hawaiian history. The king’s political maneuvering may have failed to build a protective alliance with Japan, but it bolstered his islands’ population and laid the groundwork for a cultural diversity that continues today.

5 Facts About Larry the Cat, the UK’s Chief Mouser

Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images
Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images

In February 2011, then-Prime Minster David Cameron adopted a tabby cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to help control 10 Downing Street’s rodent population. The shelter recommended Larry based on his "sociable, bold, and confident nature," and now, besides rat catching, Larry “spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defenses, and testing antique furniture for napping quality,” according to the 10 Downing Street website.

Since receiving the esteemed title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the first Downing Street cat to carry the title—he has outlasted Cameron and PM Theresa May, has had scuffles with his nemesis Palmerston (more on that later), and may have caused a security issue for Donald Trump.

It’s unclear if new PM Boris Johnson will keep Larry around or possibly replace him with a dog, which will probably not go over well with Palmerston and Gladstone, Chief Mouser of HM Treasury. Here are some things you might not know about the photogenic feline.

1. On his first day on the job, Larry scratched a journalist.

ITV News reporter Lucy Manning paid a visit to 10 Downing Street on Larry’s first day. Media attention was a new thing for Larry at the time, and he didn't immediately take to it. Instead, he lashed out and scratched Manning on the arm four times, then hid under a table and refused to come out.

2. Larry wasn't a natural mouser.

Larry the Cat wearing a collar with a bow on it and sitting on a green table.
James Glossop, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Though Larry supposedly had a "very strong predatory drive and high chase-drive and hunting instinct," according to a spokesperson, it wasn't until two months into his tenure that he started showing Downing Street's mice he meant business. As The Guardian reported in April 2011, Larry "preferred hanging out in the corridors of power to stalking in the grass" and the building's staff was forced to train the cat "by giving him a toy mouse to play with when he failed to catch any prey for two months." Finally, on Good Friday, “Larry appeared through a window from the Downing Street garden with a mouse in his mouth. He is believed to have dropped his swag at the feet of the prime minister's secretaries.” Larry continued his duties between daily cat naps.

3. Larry may or may not have caused problems for Donald Trump.

During Donald Trump’s June 2019 visit to 10 Downing Street, Larry—who is allowed outside—decided to hang out under Trump's limo (nicknamed "the Beast") to take shelter from the rain ... and reportedly wouldn't move. According to The Washington Post, "It wasn’t immediately clear whether Larry’s presence halted Trump’s movement ... Earlier, the cat appeared in a photo of Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May in front of 10 Downing Street." He did eventually mosey off (hopefully in search of mice).

4. Larry has a nemesis.

Palmerston, a black and white cat, sits outside a black and gold gate.
Leon Neal, Getty Images

In 2016, Palmerston—a black-and-white tuxedo cat named after 19th-century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston—was hired as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Chief Mouser. Like Larry, Palmerston was a rescue who came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Soon after Palmerston moved in, the cats had a couple of rows, including a major one in August 2016, during which they "were at each other hammer and tongs," according to a photographer. Larry lost his collar in the fight and messed up Palmerton’s ear as they “literally [ripped] fur off each other.” The turf war was so bad that police had to step in, and Larry needed medical treatment. Thankfully, the two seem to have ceased the cat fighting.

5. Larry has a parody twitter account.

"Larry" has an active Twitter parody account, where he comically posts political articles and photos (and has even begun poking fun at his new Downing Street flatmate, Boris Johnson). Sometimes he provides educational information: “England is part of Great Britain (along with Wales and Scotland), which in turn is part of the United Kingdom (along with Northern Ireland).” Other times he just makes cat jokes (see above).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER