The Constitution’s relevance today

September 7, 2022

History professor Stuart Leibiger, Ph.D., speaks at the National Constitution Center on the “experiment” that proved “a crucial moment in world history.”

Each year, Constitution Day—observed on September 17—recognizes the drafting and signing of the United States Constitution in 1787 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Also, in Philadelphia is The National Constitution Center, where La Salle professor of history and department chair Stuart Leibiger, Ph.D., has been invited to deliver a scholar talk on the Constitutional Convention on Saturday, Sept. 17. The event is free, whether you attend in-person or stream online.

Leibiger studies the Founders and the Founding of the United States. He shared more on the historical significance of the U.S. Constitution and why it remains relevant today.

Your talk centers on the Constitutional Convention. So… what was it?

Leibiger: Fifty-five delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia in the Summer of 1787 to draft the Constitution of the United States as a replacement for the first U.S. constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which was failing disastrously. Those delegates met for 3½ months and hammered out the Constitution that we live under today.

Why did it take so long to draft the Constitution?

Leibiger: The convention was not without disagreements. The biggest fight, between large-state delegates and small-state delegates, was over representation. It was finally settled with the Great Compromise, with representation in the House of Representatives based on each state’s population, and the U.S. Senate having two senators per state regardless of population. This fight nearly broke up the whole gathering. Previously, the Articles of Confederation based representation on state equality, a wonderful idea for a small state like Delaware, but horrible for a big state like Virginia, which had 13 times Delaware’s population.

What makes the Constitution so important?

Leibiger: The U.S. is the modern world’s first tremendously successful republican government. It was an experiment to launch this new form of government, where the people rule through elected representatives. This government was introduced in the late 18th century in a world of kings and monarchs. It was a crucial moment in world history. There is a famous story from the last day of the Constitutional Convention. As Ben Franklin headed home, he was stopped in the street by Elizabeth Powel, the wife of Philadelphia’s mayor. She said, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin famously answered, “Well, my dear, we have created a republic if you can keep it.”

Campus event

Political science professors Mark Thomas, Ph.D., and Nicholas Staffieri, Ph.D., discuss the Supreme Court and the right to privacy in “Your Rights After Dobbs,” a Constitution Day presentation.

    • Where: Hayman Hall 100
    • Date: Thursday, Sept. 15
    • Time: 12:30-1:45 p.m.

What can you tell us about your most recent book, which is on the topic of the Constitutional Convention?

Leibiger: It is a chronological narrative account of the Constitutional Convention. There is a wealth of wonderful primary sources on the convention. Ten of the delegates took notes. James Madison took detailed notes every day because he wanted future scholars to understand what had happened at the convention. My book, The Constitutional Convention of 1787, is a short, scholarly, factually accurate chronological narrative based on those primary sources.

How do you teach students today about the Constitution?

Leibiger: History is not just a bunch of trivia. Instead, it really helps us understand where we are today. This semester, I am teaching a class on the Civil War. I told my students on the first day, “This class is more relevant now than at any time since I began teaching it 25 years ago.” Think about the statues of Confederate figures coming down and the divisions in our country today. So many ask, “Has the country ever been this divided?” It was much more severely divided during the Civil War. The next question I usually get is, “Are we headed toward another Civil War today?”

What can we learn from that period of extreme divisiveness that still applies today?

Leibiger: Prior to the Civil War the Supreme Court handed down the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision over slavery. In some ways, that ruling was like the recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision on abortion rights. Both were divisive moral issues. I like to help my students develop a deeper understanding of these relevant events and then watch them draw parallels between the past and the present.

—Christopher A. Vito