Essay On The Constitutional Convention Of 1787


By 1786, Americans recognized that the Articles of Confederation, the foundation document for the new United States adopted in 1777, had to be substantially modified.  The Articles gave Congress virtually no power to regulate domestic affairs--no power to tax, no power to regulate commerce.  Without coercive power, Congress had to depend on financial contributions from the states, and they often time turned down requests.  Congress had neither the money to pay soldiers for their service in the Revolutionary War or to repay foreign loans granted to support the war effort.  In 1786, the United States was bankrupt.  Moreover, the young nation faced many other challenges and threats.  States engaged in an endless war of economic discrimination against commerce from other states.  Southern states battled northern states for economic advantage.  The country was ill-equipped to fight a war--and other nations wondered whether treaties with the United States were worth the paper they were written on.  On top of all else, Americans suffered from injured pride, as European nations dismissed the United States as "a third-rate republic."

America's creditor class had other worries.  In Rhode Island (called by elites "Rogue Island"), a state legislature dominated by the debtor class passed legislation essentially forgiving all debts as it considered a measure that would redistribute property every thirteen years.  The final straw for many came in western Massachusetts where angry farmers, led by Daniel Shays, took up arms and engaged in active rebellion in an effort to gain debt relief. 

Troubles with the existing Confederation of States finally convinced the Continental Congress, in February 1787, to call for a convention of delegates to meet in May in Philadelphia "to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." 

Across the country, the cry "Liberty!" filled the air.  But what liberty? Few people claim to be anti-liberty, but the word "liberty" has many meanings.  Should the delegates be most concerned with protected liberty of conscience, liberty of contract (meaning, for many at the time, the right of creditors to collect debts owed under their contracts), or the liberty to hold property (debtors complained that this liberty was being taken by banks and other creditors)?  Moreover, the cry for liberty could mean two very different things with respect to the slave issue--for some, the liberty to own slaves needed protection,  while for others (those more able to see through black eyes), liberty meant ending the slavery.

Convention in Philadelphia

The room in Independence Hall (formerly the State House) in Philadelphia
where debates over the proposed Constitution took place (photo by Doug Linder)

On May 25, 1787, a week later than scheduled, delegates from the various states met in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia.  Among the first orders of business was electing George Washington president of the Convention and establishing the rules--including complete secrecy concerning its deliberations--that would guide the proceedings.  (Several delegates, most notably James Madison, took extensive notes, but these were not published until decades later.)

The main business of the Convention began four days later when Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented and defended a plan for new structure of government (called the "Virginia Plan") that had been chiefly drafted by fellow Virginia delegate, James Madison.  The Virginia Plan called for a strong national government with both branches of the legislative branch apportioned by population.  The plan gave the national government the power to legislate "in all cases in which the separate States are incompetent" and even gave a proposed national Council of Revision a veto power over state legislatures. 

Delegates from smaller states, and states less sympathetic to broad federal powers, opposed many of the provisions in the Virginia Plan.  Charles Pinckney of South Carolina asked whether proponents of the plan "meant to abolish the State Governments altogether."  On June 14, a competing plan, called the "New Jersey Plan," was presented by delegate William Paterson of New Jersey.  The New Jersey Plan kept federal powers rather limited and created no new Congress.  Instead, the plan enlarged some of the powers then held by the Continental Congress.   Paterson made plain the adamant opposition of delegates from many of the smaller states to any new plan that would deprive them of equal voting power ("equal suffrage") in the legislative branch. 

Over the course of the next three months, delegates worked out a series of compromises between the competing plans.  New powers were granted to Congress to regulate the economy, currency, and the national defense, but provisions which would give the national government  a veto power over new state laws was rejected.  At the insistence of delegates from southern states, Congress was denied the power to limit the slave trade for a minimum of twenty years and slaves--although denied the vote and not recognized as citizens by those states--were allowed to be counted as 3/5 persons for the purpose of apportioning representatives and determining electoral votes.  Most importantly, perhaps, delegates compromised on the thorny issue of apportioning members of Congress, an issue that had bitterly divided the larger and smaller states.  Under a plan put forward by delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut ("the Connecticut Compromise"), representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population while each state would be guaranteed an equal two senators in the new Senate.

By September, the final compromises were made, the final clauses polished, and it came time to vote.  In the Convention, each state--regardless of its number of delegates-- had one vote, so a state evenly split could not register a vote for adoption.  In the end, thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates supported adoption of the new Constitution, barely enough to win support from each of the twelve attending state delegations. (Rhode Island, which had opposed the Convention, sent no delegation.)  Following a signing ceremony on September 17, most of the delegates repaired to the City Tavern on Second Street near Walnut where, according to George Washington, they "dined together and took cordial leave of each other."


The Constitutional Convention. Every state but Rhode Island sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The gathering included some of the most respected and talented men in America. George Washington was named president.

Edmund Randolph proposed the "Virginia Plan," drafted by James Madison -- a plan that recommended an entirely new form of government, including an executive, a judiciary, and a legislature composed of two houses and including a number of representatives from each state based on their population.

Opposition came from the small states, which feared domination by the more populous states in the legislature. William Paterson proposed the "New Jersey Plan," which essentially revised the Articles of Confederation, preserving equal representation of the states. After much debate, the Convention rejected the New Jersey Plan, deciding instead to work toward an entirely new form of government.

The issue of representation in the two houses of the new national legislature became a major sticking point for the Convention. Roger Sherman was helpful in framing the "Connecticut Compromise," a plan that suggested representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) based on population, and equal representation in the upper house (the Senate). With this compromise, the Convention succeeded in completing a rough draft of a constitution.

A Committee of Style was appointed to create a final draft; Gouverneur Morris was chosen to write it. After carefully reviewing the draft, the Convention approved the Constitution on September 17. After signing it and sending it to Congress, the Convention adjourned.

Northwest Ordinance. While the Constitutional Convention debated a new government, Congress decided upon a plan for governing all western territories north of the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance provided for a plan of government, the creation of states, the acceptance of each new state as an equal of the original states, freedom of religion, right to a trial by jury, public support of education, and the prohibition of slavery. Arthur St. Clair was named first governor of the territory.

Congress Receives the Constitution. Although some congressmen were displeased at the Convention for doing far more than revising the Articles of Confederation, on September 28 Congress agreed to pass the Constitution on to the states, so each could debate it in separate ratifying conventions. Nine states had to agree to the new Constitution for it to go into effect.

"The Federalist." Supporters of the Constitution -- Federalists -- and opponents of the Constitution -- Antifederalists -- fought fiercely in the press. Seventy-seven essays, written anonymously by "Publius," appeared in New York newspapers, explaining and defending the new Constitution. These essays, published in book form with eight additional essays, were titled The Federalist. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist was the most organized, coherent effort to defend the Constitution.

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