Constitutional Convention

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2 Constitutional Convention I INTRODUCTION Constitutional Convention, meeting during the summer of 1787 at which delegates from 12 states wrote the Constitution of the United States. At the convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the delegates abandoned the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, and created a stronger form of government. This new government included two legislative houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate; a powerful executive, the president; and a judicial body, the Supreme Court. Compromise was essential to the delegates deliberations. Large and small states compromised over the form of representation. Southern and northern states compromised over the issue of slavery. By June 21, 1788, the Constitution had been ratified by nine states and went into effect. With the addition of 26 amendments since that time, it has remained the fundamental law of the United States of America. II ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION The writing and ratification of the Constitution was the final political change that accompanied the American Revolution. The Articles of Confederation, drawn up between 1776 and 1777 by the Second Continental Congress, set out a plan for a perpetual union. They were fully implemented in March A Weaknesses

3 James Madison James Madison played a central role in the Constitutional Convention and became known as the Father of the Constitution. As a congressman from Virginia, he sponsored the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. Madison was a mediator by nature and a strong supporter of human rights. He became the fourth president of the United States. Hulton Deutsch The Articles of Confederation were written while America was fighting against the centralizing efforts of the British imperial government. The men who wrote the Articles feared the power of a central government and wanted to ensure the new union would not recreate the threats posed by the British Crown. Thus the Articles created a weak central government that depended on the states to raise taxes, required the agreement of 9 of the 13 states to pass most measures, and called for the agreement of all state legislatures to any changes in the government s structure. This first government had neither an executive department, such as a president, nor a federal judiciary, such as today s Supreme Court. Many historians argue that the U.S. government was ineffective before the Constitution went into effect in Foreign powers did not respect the new nation. Uprisings by Native Americans threatened the frontier, and the economy sank into a recession. States threatened one another with duties on imported goods, and internal rebellion appeared to lurk around every corner. Other scholars disagree that 1788 marked such a dramatic change. After that date diplomatic difficulties continued, confrontations with Native Americans on the frontier did not disappear, and rebellions occurred. Moreover, the economy was recovering by 1786, the states were not working at

4 cross-purposes before the Constitution, and individual states had begun paying the war debt and establishing a stable currency. Furthermore, under the Articles of Confederation, the national government passed the Northwest Ordinance. This law set up a mechanism for the orderly addition of new states to the union that has been followed ever since. B The Call to Convene Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton was one of the boldest American political thinkers of his time. Hamilton developed the doctrine of implied powers, which supports a liberal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. He also served as the nation s first secretary of the treasury. Hulton Deutsch However, during the 1780s several American leaders, such as nationalists Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, wanted a strong federal government. They believed there was a crisis brewing. Madison thought the state legislatures changed laws too frequently. Hamilton had similar concerns, but distrusted the state governments, and the voters, even more. These nationalists believed their worst fears were being realized when Shays Rebellion broke out in western Massachusetts during the winter of 1786 and Daniel Shays and his supporters objected to collecting debts when these collections drove poor farmers off their land. To stop the collections, they interrupted court proceedings against farmers. The nationalists argued that democracy was giving way to violence and threatening order and good government. Hamilton and Madison sought to move power away from the states and to create a larger frame of government. They hoped a grander scope of government would

5 lead to the election of men with education and judgment who would stand above local interests and pursue a larger common good. In September of 1786 a number of these nationalists, led by Hamilton, met at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss trade issues. Their major accomplishment was to call for a larger meeting the following summer in Philadelphia to amend and strengthen the Articles of Confederation. Seven states selected delegates even before the Congress cautiously sanctioned the meeting in February Although Congress approved the meeting, it added a provision that any changes had to be approved by Congress and the states. Eventually all states but Rhode Island sent delegates, although several states had difficulty maintaining the minimum of four delegates necessary for official representation throughout the proceedings. Like the government under the Articles of Confederation, each state delegation had only one vote during the convention. Only 7 of the 12 states needed to be present in order for the convention to be in session, and a majority of those states attending were allowed to decide an issue. This meant that as few as four states could design the new government. To encourage open discussion and prevent public influence, the convention voted to keep all of its day-to-day discussions secret. This closed-door policy created, in essence, a news blackout that left the nation in the dark about what was being considered. III CONVENTION ATTENDEES

6 Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin was a statesman and diplomat for the newly formed United States, as well as a prolific author and inventor. Franklin helped draft, and then signed, the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Hulton Deutsch The nationalists attracted an impressive group of leaders. After some hesitation, George Washington accepted appointment as a Virginia delegate, believing that a stronger central government was needed. Once the convention began, Washington was elected its president. This position prevented him from joining the debates, but added his authority to the proceedings. Benjamin Franklin, then serving as the chief executive of Pennsylvania, attended the convention. The aged Franklin was internationally famous as a scientist, philosopher, diplomat, and statesman. He limited his participation in the debates but offered advice at critical moments. Madison, too, was present in Philadelphia as a delegate from Virginia, and more than any other individual he is believed to be responsible for the language of the Constitution. Hamilton served on the New York delegation and sought to create a central government even stronger than the one that was finally agreed upon. The rest of the delegates represented the American political elite. They included George Mason and Edmund Randolph from Virginia, Charles Pinckney from South Carolina, Robert Morris and James

7 Wilson from Pennsylvania, John Dickinson of Delaware, Gouverneur Morris from New York, William Paterson from New Jersey, Roger Sherman from Connecticut, and Elbridge Gerry and Rufus King from Massachusetts. Only a few of the great American political leaders of the time did not attend. Patrick Henry refused to serve as a delegate, fearing that the convention would create too strong a government, one that would infringe on state and individual rights. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were on diplomatic missions in Europe. IV THE CONVENTION Constitutional Convention Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was too weak to govern the states. After several proposals for reform, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the document that still forms the basis of the United States government. The new Constitution delegated extensive powers to the central government, but reserved many powers for the individual states. THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE The Virginia delegation began the convention by offering a series of resolutions. The most significant of these called the Articles of Confederation defective and directed the convention to create an entirely new form of government. To consider these resolutions, the convention adjourned into a committee of

8 the whole, meaning the representatives would be meeting informally, allowing for free debate. The convention remained as a committee of the whole for most of the rest of the summer. The delegates passed the resolution to abandon the Articles of Confederation. The Virginia delegation also presented a blueprint, authored by Madison, for the new government. The key element of this blueprint, which became known as the Virginia Plan, was a government with three branches: executive, judicial, and legislative. The legislature would have two houses, with the upper house being selected by the lower house. The executive would be elected by the legislature. Representation in the legislature was to be based on population. Delegates from the smaller states, such as Delaware and New Jersey, immediately objected to representation based on population, but it was several weeks before they could offer a counterproposal. This proposal, the New Jersey Plan, was presented by William Paterson of New Jersey and was supported by the smaller states. It opposed the Virginia Plan and sought only to revise the Articles of Confederation. The small-state delegates argued that the convention had not been given the authority to create a new form of government. They insisted that the states remain sovereign so that they could maintain absolute and final authority on questions of law and policy. They conceded that the federal government should have the power to pass export and stamp duties, as well as regulate foreign relations and trade between states. The small-state delegates accepted the idea of having three branches of government, but they did not want a single executive because it reminded them too much of royalty. Instead, they wanted multiple executives who would wield less authority, a judiciary with limited functions, and a legislature in which each state had an equal vote. The convention delegates finally agreed on proportional representation for the lower house, but then fell out over the issue of slavery. The question arose whether slaves were to be counted as part of the population in determining representation, or whether they were to be considered property. In South Carolina, where half of the population consisted of slaves, counting slaves would double the state's representation in the lower house. Many delegates from northern states, where slavery still existed but where slaves were a small percentage of the population, believed it was unfair that one form of property, and not others, would affect representation. In the end, both sides gave ground. The so-

9 called three-fifths compromise provided that five unfree persons (slaves) would be counted as three people in determining the number of congressional representatives. The differences between the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan led to intense and often bitter debate. Finally a compromise, originally suggested by Roger Sherman, emerged. The Connecticut (or Great) Compromise did not entirely satisfy any of the delegations. To the smaller states it conceded equal representation in the upper house, the Senate, while establishing proportional representation in the lower house, the House of Representatives. This compromise guaranteed the political future of the individual states. It also meant that the delegates would be creating a new government, rather than revising the Articles of Confederation. The convention agreed upon three branches of government, but created a system of checks and balances so that no one branch would be more powerful than another. The legislative branch was responsible for passing laws, but the executive branch could veto legislation; the veto could, however, be overridden if two-thirds of the members of both houses of Congress voted to override. The president appointed the members of the judicial branch, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Once appointed, the judges served independently of either the executive or legislative branches. The judges, as well as the executive, could be impeached and dismissed for high crimes and misdemeanors. The delegates also sought a balance between the power of the states and the power of the federal government. Although the Articles of Confederation were swept away, the states retained a great deal of power. All states had to be republics, but they were allowed to determine their own governmental structure. They kept the power to tax, but not to coin money. They had no authority in international affairs or in regulating relations between states, but they appeared sovereign within their own borders. Ultimately, the exact balance of power between the national government and states remained unclear and continued to be an area of debate and contention. One area of concern to the South was the issue of slavery. Although at this time only a few Northern states had moved to abolish slavery, the Southern states obtained an agreement that the international slave trade would not be banned for at least 20 years. The Civil War ( ) was fought in part over the issue of slavery and in part

10 over the issue of states rights. Politicians still continue to argue the relative merits of states rights versus federal power. The authors of the Constitution were great statesmen who distrusted the common people. They believed that the common people were easily misled and were not always able to select the best person to represent them. They wrote into the Constitution a series of devices to limit the ability of the electorate to directly affect the government. The president, who was given extensive appointive and military powers, was to be selected by an electoral college made up of people appointed from each state, rather than by the voters directly. If no presidential candidate obtained a majority of the votes in the electoral college, the House of Representatives would select the president. In such an election (which has only actually happened twice), each state would have one vote, and the candidate with the majority of the votes would be selected. The Senate was also to be chosen not by the voters, but by the assemblies of the states. This provision was changed to a popular vote by the 17th Amendment in The delegates to the Constitutional Convention created a novel method of ratifying the Constitution. Each state was to hold a ratification convention. Once nine states had ratified the document, the government under the Articles of Confederation would end, and the new government would go into effect. The delegates adopted this method in part to avoid a direct vote of the people, and in part to avoid submitting the Constitution to Congress and the state legislatures, where they believed it would be rejected. Some scholars have considered the ratification of the Constitution a coup d'état because this process sidestepped the legal mechanism set up under the Articles of Confederation and ignored the original instructions of Congress and the states that any changes to the Articles be subject to state approval. These scholars believe that if a popular election had been held, the majority of the voters would have rejected the Constitution. V RATIFICATION CONTROVERSIES

11 U.S. Constitution The Constitution of the United States has been the supreme law of the nation since Drafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, it calls for a government of limited and delegated powers. George Washington was chosen to serve as president of the convention by the 55 delegates, who represented 12 states. The delegates drafted the document and then sent it to the states for ratification. All 13 states had ratified the Constitution by the end of Hulton Deutsch Supporters of the Constitution called themselves Federalists and labeled their opponents as Antifederalists. The Antifederalists attacked the Constitution on several grounds. They first objected to the absence of a bill of rights. Several states had adopted written guarantees of the rights of citizens to ensure that the government would not destroy the liberty of the people. A bill of rights would assert the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion, and maintain the protection of property and due process of law. Antifederalists feared that the new, strong central government could too easily threaten these liberties and be unchecked by the states. Another Antifederalist objection was concern that the proposed federal government would have too much power, and like the power that had threatened the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s, would lead to corruption. The president was seen as a quasi king, with extensive powers beyond the reach of the

12 people. Antifederalists viewed the Senate and the judiciary neither of which was selected by the people as aristocratic. Opponents of the Constitution even attacked the House of Representatives because they believed it did not contain enough members, and the districts represented were so large that it would be difficult for common people to find a person to represent their interests. Antifederalists also held that the Constitution would destroy the sovereignty of the states. In other words, many Antifederalists believed that the Constitution protected the interests of an emerging aristocracy at the expense of the common people. From their perspective, the Constitution represented a defeat of the democracy created as a result of the American Revolution. The response to these charges appeared most brilliantly in The Federalist papers, written by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay. This series of articles, published in the newspapers of the day, argued that a stronger form of government would avoid future conflicts between the states. Previously, political theorists held that each branch of government represented a different level of society, each of which needed to check the other. The executive represented the monarchy, the upper house represented the aristocracy, and the lower house represented the common people. In the new Constitution each branch of government could be given greater power because each was a special representative of the people. The Federalists adopted the democratic language of their opponents and claimed that under the Constitution neither the states nor the federal government would be sovereign; instead, the people would be sovereign. The Federalists believed the different ways of electing and selecting government officers were merely different avenues to the same thing a balanced representation of the will of the people. In their view, the first words of the Preamble of the Constitution 'We the People' held the key to understanding the entire document. The Federalists organized quickly and pushed ratification through several states before their opponents knew what was going on. They then used this momentum to convince all but two states to ratify. North Carolina and Rhode Island initially voted against ratification, but reconsidered soon thereafter and joined the new government by the end of The Constitution went into effect on June 21, The Federalists soon conceded the need for a guarantee of rights. By 1791 the new government had ratified the first ten amendments, which outlined a Bill of Rights. During the following years, 16 more

13 amendments were made to the Constitution, including amendments to election laws and provisions regarding slavery and the political status of women. The authors of the Constitution created a document that stands today as the fundamental law of one of the longest-lived democracies in the world. The U.S. Constitution has been the model of balanced government followed by many other nations and is the defining characteristic of the democracy of the United States of America. Contributed By: Paul A. Gilje

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