I admit, I’ve let this blog sputter under a hectic schedule and (if we’re being brutally honest) a lack of anything substantive to say about writing these past couple months. I first started Write Full Circle as part of a class on blogging, and so I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d end up with it. It’s increasingly become clear that I have plenty to say, but only a small part of it actually relates to writing. I feel weird about posting non-writing-related stuff here, so I’m currently working on a new web project which will remedy that situation, and provide a more general forum for *all* of my interests and hobbies, not just writing. More to come on this front in the next couple weeks, hopefully sooner.
If you’ve been following AdventureGamers.com at all, you know I’m still actively writing reviews for the site, but my personal writing projects have been taking a backseat to other projects of late, including the aforementioned web project and other issues of Real Life. Before becoming distracted I had written a really solid first draft of a story that I think I want to serialize here, so now that it’s been a while since I looked at it, I’ll go back in and edit it into shape.
Just wanted to give you all an update as to what’s been happening since I last posted in July(!). Before signing off, since I’m drafting this on Wednesday I’ll leave you with a quick writing prompt:
Welcome back, Readers. On Wednesday’s part two of this three-part look at the founding documents of the United States, we explored the Articles of Confederation, which established a governmental structure in the years immediately following America’s independence from Britain. It’s taken me a few days to figure out the best way to do this, as it’s such a large document, but today we will look at the Constitution, the supreme law of the United States. Excerpts will be taken from the full transcript, as found at the National Archives website.
After the issues with the Articles of Confederation resulted in a government that was essentially paralyzed, a Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia in 1787, where it was hoped that the Articles could be amended to satisfaction. When this failed, the Framers set about drafting a new document, one that would mitigate the problems of an extremely weak federal government while preserving the ideals of liberty and republicanism. The Preamble (introduction), perhaps the most famous part of the Constitution, sets out the document’s purpose in soaring tones:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Preamble makes clear that the laws of the government come from the people of the nation themselves, and not from a king or distant parliament as had been done during the Colonial Era. Ratified in 1788, the seven articles that make up the original, unamended Constitution lay out the structure and powers of the new system of government.
Articles 1-3 describe the Legislature (House of Representatives and Senate), Executive (Office of the President), and Judiciary (federal court system, including the Supreme Court) branches, and the powers that they will have.
Article 4 outlines how the federal government will relate to the states. Provisions are made for the creation of new states, freedom of movement between states, and the guarantee of a republican form of government in all states under the new government. It is this last provision which allows the federal government to sent troops into a state to preserve or restore law and order, such as took place during Reconstruction following the Civil War.
Article 5 lays down the rules for amending the Constitution. There are two ways this can happen, and I’ll let the US Senate’s exhibit on the Constitution explain it:
The standard device, used for all amendments so far, is for both houses of Congress to pass by two-thirds vote a proposal, which they send to the states for ratification, either by state legislatures or by conventions within the states. An amendment is ratified when three-fourths of the states approve. The Constitution also authorizes a national convention, when two-thirds of the states petition Congress for such a convention, to propose amendments, which would also have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.
Article 6 does three things: it declares the debts of the old Confederation to be the responsibility of the new United States government; makes itself the supreme law of the United States (called the “supremacy clause”), which insures that all laws created by the states and all decisions made by the Supreme Court are bound, first and foremost, by the Constitution; finally, Article 6 establishes that an Oath (or Affirmation) to defend the Constitution of the United States must be taken by any state or federal official, but that no religious test for office shall ever be required.
Article 7, finally, established that the new Constitution would go into effect when nine of the thirteen states ratified (approved) it.
Besides the Preamble, perhaps the most famous part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified as a group in 1791. These ten amendments are often considered the cornerstone of freedom in the United States, and guarantee various civil liberties. As a summary, those liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights include:
Freedom of religion, including the freedom to profess no religious belief, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly and petition.
Right to bear arms
Soldiers may not be housed (“quartered”) in private homes in either peace-time or time of war.
No unreasonable searches and seizures of property; warrants must be issued according to probable cause for specific places to be searched and property to be seized.
Establishes that there are rights not specifically addressed by the Constitution, but that this should not be taken to mean that they are therefore denied by it.
Provides that powers not specifically given to the federal government are reserved to the states, or the people.
In addition to the above summary, I’ve reprinted the entire Bill of Rights here for you to read if you wish:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
So, we’ve come to the end of our Independence Week celebration! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little detour into an exploration of the founding documents of the United States. Expect a return to our regularly scheduled programming later this week.
Hello again, readers! Today I’m taking a break from our regularly scheduled Writing Prompt Wednesday to continue looking at the founding documents of the United States, in honor of Independence Day.
On July 4th, we looked at the Declaration of Independence, which declared to the “powers of the earth” that the thirteen Colonies would “assume” a “separate and equal station” alongside them. Today we’ll move forward in time a bit, from the birth of America’s Independence in 1776 to our nation’s first attempt to turn a collection of small-‘u’ “united States of America” (that’s how it’s actually written in the Declaration) into the entity we call the United States of America in 1781.
While we don’t normally think about it, there was a constitution before there was The Constitution that we know today. Called the Articles of Confederation, they were ratified in 1781 and held the country together in a loosely-bound “league of friendship” for almost a decade.
When the Articles were drafted, the grievances the newly-independent Colonies had with the British Empire were still quite fresh, and so there was a very real feeling that each state in the Union should retain as much freedom from interference as possible. In order to do this, the Articles of Confederation created a weak form of government where each state in the Confederation was granted powers not expressly delegated by the Articles to the national government:
Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
In addition, the Articles granted free movement of citizens and commerce between states, extradition powers for fugitives, and “freedom of speech and debate in Congress.” It also restricted the ability for states to enter into treaties with other governments, but allowed states to create agreements with each other with the approval of Congress:
No State, without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled, shall send any embassy to, or receive any embassy from, or enter into any conference, agreement, alliance or treaty with any King, Prince or State; nor shall any person holding any office of profit or trust under the United States, or any of them, accept any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any King, Prince or foreign State; nor shall the United States in Congress assembled, or any of them, grant any title of nobility.
No two or more States shall enter into any treaty, confederation or alliance whatever between them, without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled, specifying accurately the purposes for which the same is to be entered into, and how long it shall continue.
Interestingly, there was only one branch of government under the Articles of Confederation, the Legislative branch, embodied in the Congress of the Confederation, which was the highest national office. There was a President, called the President of the United States in Congress Assembled, but his abilities were incredibly diminished, since all of his duties were performed at the direction of the Congress.
There was no national court system, and laws passed that affected all states could not be enforced. Funding of the national government came from the states themselves, who often refused to pay, leading to a crisis in which promised payments to the Continental Army were unable to be made. Rhode Island and New York refused tariffs (basically taxes) on imported goods, which would have helped fund the government.
And it is in these issues that the problems of the Articles of Confederation (and, one can argue, the issue with ANY confederation) become apparent: without a strong national government, the “United” in United States of America was little more than a nice name and an unrealized ideal.
By 1786, it was decided that something had to be done to improve the situation. While it was initially hoped that revision of the existing Articles would be sufficient, eventually it became clear that the requirement of unanimous agreement for amendment made it impossible to actually revise the Articles to any degree of satisfaction. Thus, the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia in 1787.
Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans! While I am a general history buff, I especially have an interest in the Enlightenment era, and of early United States history in particular. In view of this, I have devised a week of festivities surrounding the founding documents of the United States, beginning today with a post of the complete text of the Declaration of Independence.
It is a relatively short read, I think, and I encourage EVERY citizen of this country to read it. While I’m sure most of us were told in school how important this document is, I feel, as dothesepeople, that to truly appreciate it and its modern relevance, as with any text you have to engage with it. Read it slowly, and keep a dictionary handy for when you run across a word you don’t understand.
It’s incredible when you consider that this small document, and the Republic it founded, left a lasting legacy on world-wide politics. The idea that a government rules by “consent of the governed” was expressed in an early form in Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book Leviathan, which outlined a form of social contract theory. Butthe idea that governments, their laws, and in fact their very legitimacy are actually rooted in the consent of the people, as opposed to a single ruler or group of rulers who derive their legitimacy from an unquestionable divine right, was first expressed in the practical form we understand today in the Declaration of Independence.
It’s interesting to note that during this time in the 17th century there were other revolutions taking place around the Atlantic region, one of which actually preceded the American Revolution (the Corsican Revolution, which ended French rule there). The influence continued to be felt from these revolutions down through the decades, with similar uprisings taking place in 1820, 1830, and 1848.
While not all were successful in achieving their aims (particularly the 1848 revolutions), they all played a part in making governments around the world acknowledge the will of the people as the basis of their rule. Throughout history, absolute monarchies had been the most common form of government.
If you’re interested, here are some questions, which I recommend copying to a separate document or printing out, to focus on as you read the text. Note that some of these questions use terms that have meanings specific to philosophy and law. More information about these terms can be found at the related hyperlinks:
Why does the opening paragraph invoke the idea of a God of Nature, and declare that both this “God” and the “Laws of Nature” entitle the people of the then-colonies “separate and equal station” among the “powers [I read this as “nations” -WFC] of the earth”?
What if there are no unchanging natural laws, and morals are relative to the society and time period in which they were created and followed? Does this undermine the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence? Why or why not?
Is there an identifiable God of Nature? If one does not recognize the existence of any higher power, supernatural or otherwise, does this weaken the argument the Declaration makes for independence? Why or why not?
The writer of the Declaration was Thomas Jefferson, a statesman and lawyer from Virginia who would become the 3rd president of the United States. Are there specific passages that especially sound like an attorney arguing for or against something?
Do you think Jefferson was chosen to write the document because he was versed in legal matters?
What do you think the terms “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” meant to the colonists in the context of independence from Britain?
What do these things mean to us as Americans today?
Have they changed meaning, and if so, in what ways?
What do these terms mean to you, specifically?
One passage near the end of the Declaration addresses the conflict that would no doubt arise from declaring independence from Britain: “We have warned [” our Brittish (sic) brethren”] from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us…They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” [Emphasis mine]
Why do you think that the colonists make it clear that they wish to remain friends with the British after naming so many accusations against them?
Does the concept of Natural Law have anything to do with this decision? Why or why not?
Sensitivity Note: Near the end of the list of accusations against the British, the Declaration uses offensive language (“…merciless Indian Savages…”) to refer to Native Americans who had apparently been involved in massacres of colonists on the frontier. Though doing little to soften its derogatory impact today, it should be noted that at the time of the Declaration’s writing, the term “savage” meant something more neutral than it does now, though influential statesman Benjamin Franklin in fact deplored the term because he felt that it was applied to Native Americans simply because they were “different” and not a part of what would have been considered polite society or “civilization” at the time by the average colonist.
While some would probably prefer not to have to engage with this particular part of the Declaration (“wrestle with” might be a better term), I am nevertheless an advocate of understanding and engaging with historical writings on their own terms, as the product of imperfect people with a view of the world informed by particular cultural norms and biases. Rather than an indictment against the ideals embodied by a particular text, I see it rather as an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made, often on the shoulders of a given document and the broad ideals it encourages, and the work we still have to do in recognizing and overcoming the biases inherent in one’s culture, and oneself.
And now, finally and without further ado, on this July 4th, may I present the Declaration of Independence in its entirety (well, minus the signatures 😉 ):
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Not-so-shameful confession: I’m something of a “pantser” when it comes to writing, especially fiction. When starting a new project, I tend to jump right in without a plan or outline to guide me. At most, I will have a scene or a character in mind that I want to explore to see where it leads, and I love the freedom that this approach affords. However, once I decide that it’s an idea worth pursuing seriously, it’s time to go back and do some “worldbuilding,” organizing what I’ve written so far and filling out the little nooks and crannies of the setting to make it more real for both writer and reader (but not, necessarily, more realistic – for instance, the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe is highly unrealistic from the standpoint of physical possibility, but the setting itself has a wonderful sense of reality).
There’s tons of information about worldbuilding you can find with a simple Google search (like this article, which reinforces some of the same ideas I’ll discuss momentarily), but for me, worldbuilding is a little bit like playing a game of twenty questions with myself about the setting and characters. These are the questions I usually start with:
Who lives in this place?
What kind of government do they have, and why?
What is the dominant religious institution, and why is it dominant?
What are the competing faiths, and what kind of relationship do they have with the dominant one?
How does the military function, and how much influence does it have over civilian life and/or government affairs?
I focus on these questions in the beginning mainly because I enjoy ruminating on the sort of high-level details that provide a glimpse into the society as a whole. While some writers tend to focus more on the characters in the beginning, filling out the attributes of each character and then creating a world in which to place them, I find starting at the society/culture level more effective, because once I give reality to the world I can better understand what kinds of characters populate it.
I also ask questions that help to flesh out the religion of the culture in which the story takes place. The power of religion to shape the course of a society is immense, and so it’s a good idea to explore how it impacts the history, events, and characters of your narrative. Some questions regarding this topic might include:
What kinds of stories do these people tell themselves about their place in the world?
What do they believe about other cultures? Are they generally inclusive or exclusive of others? How do they see themselves in relation to these other cultures?
What myths and legends do they believe in, and why?
How have these mythologies changed over time, and what caused them to change?
It also helps to understand where each of your main characters comes from (both genealogically and geographically – never underestimate geography when worldbuilding*), and what their major desires are in life, as this will impact both the events of the plot and how each character deals with them. For instance, a woman who had particularly cold parents might desire a sense of belonging, and someone who always received unconditional approval might suffer from a seemingly paradoxical inadequacy complex. Someone who lives in a sparsely populated frontier might tend towards hard-driving independence, while city-dwellers could be apt to uphold societal norms.
You might be wondering why one doesn’t just write and let all of this fall into place on its own. Isn’t time spent worldbuilding just time taken away from the actual story you want to tell?
Well, yes and no. As with research, you want to avoid getting so caught up in the process of worldbuilding that you lose sight of the actual goal: to tell an interesting story. This is especially true if, like me, you particularly enjoy tackling the bigger-picture elements that worldbuilding necessarily involves. I can – and do – sit and write about these things for hours when I’m having a particularly good worldbuilding session, and when that happens I am keenly aware that not much of the actual story I want to tell is being put down on the page.
That said, I often find that, if I’m having trouble figuring out some plot point or struggling to understand how my characters might react in a certain situation, a little detour into worldbuilding gives me tools to help solve those issues. Figuring these things out in advance not only makes it easier to visualize the setting and characters while you write, but also creates a more complete and believable world, one that is easier to understand.
Indeed, what often results from my worldbuilding is a variety of documents that I refer to as “artifacts:” myths, legends, and even government decrees such as laws and legislation, each of which help answer why and how things came to be in the particular slice of history where the story takes place. Answering the question “Why are things the way they are?” is key to understanding the real world, and I find that being familiar with answers to that question in my fictional worlds helps me to create livelier, more intriguing stories. Sure, it’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun.