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The Constitutional Convention
The Event that Shaped America
On May 25th, 1787, a historically significant event was set in motion which would completely change the entire structure of American government: The Constitutional Convention. On the shoulders of a weak national government, America was falling to pieces and radical change was required. Delegates from across the sprawling new nation met in Philadelphia to address the dire need for change. The near-unanimous conclusion was that what America needed was not a revised Constitution, but a new Constitution. The Constitutional Convention was one of the most important and impactful events in American history.
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When the United States declared its independence from Britain, it had a question to ask itself; what form of government would be best for this new country? On the heels of a tyrannical rule from the British, Americans despised the idea of a strong national government. Instead, what they wanted was independent and sovereign states with a weak national government. Enacted in 1781, the Articles of Confederation became the first constitution for the United States of America (Collier & Collier, 2007). Under the Articles of Confederation, the created national government was weak and fragmented. The states controlled most of the power and were essentially individual, sovereign entities. The national government could enact taxes but had no reliable method of enforcing such taxes (Collier & Collier, 2007). Despite having a legislative branch to make laws for the entire nation, the national government had no reliable way of enforcing laws upon the states (Collier & Collier, 2007). Without a way to enforce laws, ensure tax payments, and keep the states in line, the national government was essentially a ceremonial figure. Many Americans recognized the faults in the government created by the Articles of Confederation, but none of the states had any desire to relinquish their sovereignty. However, once the economy started to rapidly deteriorate, this view would begin to shift.
With the United States government unable to collect taxes, it was quickly becoming bankrupt and unable to pay off its war debts to citizens, states, and foreign countries (Collier & Collier, 2007). On top of this, states were also struggling to pay back the mountain of war debts that were left behind from the storm that was the Revolutionary War (Collier & Collier, 2007). To further compound the rising economic panic, citizens were currently lusting for foreign goods, and thus a majority of the hard currency in America was flowing to other countries (Collier & Collier, 2007). As the money in America started to become more scarce, British creditors started to lean on states and merchants for the payments on their debts (Collier & Collier, 2007). This caused American merchants to demand immediate payment from poor farmers and shopkeepers who owed them money (Collier & Collier, 2007). Some of the states who were pressured by British merchants, such as Massachusetts, decided to raise taxes on their citizens (Collier & Collier, 2007). Debtors bitterly fought to convince their state legislature to pass laws to halt or ease the debt crisis, but as the creditors usually controlled the legislature, this was not possible (Collier & Collier, 2007). It was not uncommon for small groups of poor farmers, who were drowning in oceans of debt, to rebel, destroying courthouses, debt records, and other legal institutions (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). However, these events were relatively minor and were swiftly stopped by the state militia; that is, until the incident in Massachusetts (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). Massachusetts was controlled by wealthy merchants and the prestigious upper-class who had no concern for the poor or lower-class citizens. In late 1780, and the following years, the government of Massachusetts started enacting high taxes upon its citizens to finance their war debts (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). With hard currency shortages and high taxes, the once poor or low-class farmers were now bled dry of any form of money. At the height of the crisis in 1786, the Massachusetts state legislature adjourned without addressing the financial plague, resulting in a public frenzy (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). Numerous revolts by poor farmers broke out all over Massachusetts (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). While these revolts were initially separate events, many groups of disgruntled and furious farmers eventually formed into a small army under the Revolutionary War hero, Daniel Shays (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). Boldened by their successes, Shays and his insurgents attacked a federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). Much to their surprise, the arsenal was guarded by a thousand state militiamen who quickly dealt with the main force of the rebellion (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). Most of the rebellion disbanded after the heartbreaking defeat in Springfield and the leader, Daniel Shays, went into hiding (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). The American public, especially those of wealth, was horrified by the events of Shays’ Rebellion since the national government was powerless to intervene (Shays’ Rebellion, 2009). The events of Shays’ Rebellion not only highlighted the sickness that afflicted the American government but also acted as a signal calling for immediate action.
The first step toward a stronger national government was taken on September 11th, 1786 in the form of the Annapolis Convention (Bowen, 1986). Starting on September 11th and lasting until the 14th, state delegates met to discuss uniform trade regulations to remedy the current economic hardships (Bowen, 1986). However, out of the thirteen states, only five states had delegates at the convention, thus the power of the Annapolis Convention was negligible. Led by James Madison, a Virginia planter, and Alexander Hamilton, a New York lawyer, the topic of discussion quickly shifted from trade regulations to the weaknesses in the government created by the Articles of Confederation (Bowen, 1986). The delegates knew that for anything to be done, more state delegates had to be present, and thus decided to reconvene next year in Philadelphia for another convention (Bowen, 1986). To provide a strong sense of legitimacy to the new convention, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton managed to convince George Washington to attend (Bowen, 1986). George Washington was the most popular and trusted man in the United States; his presence alone would provide the future convention with credibility (Bowen, 1986). With the wheels of liberty spinning once again, all anyone could do now was wait.
The convention in Philadelphia was originally scheduled to begin on the 14th of May, but due to travel complications, it was delayed until the 25th (Beeman, 2009). Arriving well before the original start date, James Madison began to draft a framework of what he believed should be the main topics of discussion (Collier & Collier, 2007). The basis of Madison’s plan was to scrap the Articles of Confederation and introduce a newer, stronger form of government (Collier & Collier, 2007). As an ardent nationalist, James Madison’s vision of the ideal government had three strong branches, a legislature, an executive branch, and a judicial branch (Collier & Collier, 2007). Under his plan, the legislature would be bicameral (two-house) and both houses would contain state representatives proportionate to population (Collier & Collier, 2007). The executive branch would be elected by the legislature and would have the power to enforce the laws passed by the legislature, (Collier & Collier, 2007). Lastly, Madison’s plan for the judicial branch was a simple national court system in which the judges would be elected by the legislature (Collier & Collier, 2007). With the support and backing of other delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Virginia Plan would be used as the initial blueprint for the convention’s discussions (Collier & Collier, 2007).
With twenty-nine delegates from nine different states present, the Constitutional Convention began on May 25th, 1787 (Beeman, 2009). Throughout the entire convention, a total of fifty-five delegates from twelve of the thirteen states, Rhode Island chose to not attend, attended and participated in the Constitutional Convention, which at the time was just known as the Philadelphia Convention (Bowen, 1986). In attendance were many well-known and respected men such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and John Adams (Bowen, 1986). George Washington was unanimously elected as the presiding officer over the convention (Beeman, 2009). James Madison quickly became the most prominent speaker and one of the only delegates to attend every single session (Beeman, 2009). The introduction of Madison’s plan at the start of the Philadelphia Convention was integral to the proceedings because it brought nearly every delegate together on one major ideal. Madison, and now many others, believed that the convention should go beyond its initial purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and instead create a new Constitution for the United States of America (Collier & Collier, 2007). The delegates at the convention agreed on the general aspects of government and Madison’s Virginia Plan. Madison’s idea of a strong bicameral legislature, a powerful executive branch, and an equally strong judicial branch were barely contested by the present delegates (Collier & Collier, 2007). The disputes would come later, in the discussions over their specifics. One of the first proposals was on the 7th of June, and it was to have the members of the upper house of the new Congress elected by the state legislatures instead of a popular vote (Collier & Collier, 2007). This proposal was widely supported and accepted as it preserved the power of the upper-class, which a large majority of the present delegates were a part of (Collier & Collier, 2007). The point of contention that followed soon after was the matter of how judges in the judicial branch should be elected into their offices (Beeman, 2009). Madison and his supporters wanted the judges elected by the legislature, while others wanted the judges to be chosen by the president (Beeman, 2009). The eventual compromise was to have the president choose candidates, and the upper house of the legislature would then vote to approve them (Beeman, 2009).
During these initial minor disputes was an ongoing discussion of how to properly distribute state representation in the new Congress (Collier & Collier, 2007). Large states wanted to be represented based on population, while small states wanted an equal representation regardless of population (Collier & Collier, 2007). This led to the introduction of the New Jersey Plan by William Paterson (Collier & Collier, 2007). The New Jersey plan was mainly a rebuttal of Madison’s Virginia Plan, with its focal point being to keep the Constitutional Congress and its equal representation (Collier & Collier, 2007). The rejection of the plan further enraged the delegates of small states and some threatened to withdraw from the convention if they did not receive equal representation in the national legislature. In hopes to reach a compromise, Connecticut delegates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth created a new proposal for congressional apportionment which would become known as the Connecticut Compromise (Collier & Collier, 2007). Sherman and Ellsworth strongly agreed with the bicameral structure of the legislature, however; both men had a brilliant idea to have proportional representation in one house, and equal in the other. Under their plan, the lower house, the House of Representatives, would contain state representatives proportionate to their population and the upper house, the Senate, would have an equal, fixed number of delegates per state (Collier & Collier, 2007). The proposal was met with support from the small states and opposition from the large states (Collier & Collier, 2007). To garnish more support from large states, a modification to the proposal was added that required that all revenue bills must originate in the lower house, thus providing large states with the most control over revenue bills (Collier & Collier, 2007). On July 16th, the Constitutional Convention passed the Connecticut Compromise, easing the tension between large and small states (Collier & Collier, 2007).
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Another major issue of debate during the Constitutional Convention was the dispute over slavery and its role between the northern and southern states. The southern states depended upon the institution of slavery for their livelihood and threatened to vehemently oppose any proposal that may intend to harm that (Collier & Collier, 2007). The delegates at the convention did not particularly care for the rights or protections of enslaved Africans; rather their discussions were on how enslaved African populations should contribute to representation and taxation (Collier & Collier, 2007). With the southern enslaved African population representing a third of the south’s total population, southern states felt it necessary for slaves to count towards representation in the House of Representatives (Bowen, 1986). The northern states, who had the lowest slave populations, saw this as a way for the south to gain the upper hand and therefore wanted slaves to not count at all towards representation (Bowen, 1986). In terms of taxation, however, the roles of the south and north were reversed. The north was fine with the slave population counting towards as it would not affect them too much, but it would hurt the south; in contrast, the southern states were strongly against this because their taxes would be much lower without slaves counting towards population taxation (Collier & Collier, 2007). A potential compromise was introduced on June 11th by James Wilson (Collier & Collier, 2007). James Wilson proposed that three-fifths, or 60%, of a state’s slave population, should count towards both representation and taxation (Collier & Collier, 2007). This would become known as the Three-Fifths Compromise. Following behind constant debate and after being initially rejected, the Three-Fifths Compromise was eventually adopted in an attempt to appease the northern and southern states (Collier & Collier, 2007).
While debates over congressional representation took center stage, another integral matter was also being discussed: the executive branch. With the tyrannical British rule still fresh in the minds of the American populace, no one wanted to have that repeated. The delegates were split on whether to have the chief executive be a single person or a group of people (The Constitutional Convention, 2012). After much debate over the issues that both situations would cause, the delegates decided upon a single chief executive to control the power of the executive branch (The Constitutional Convention, 2012). The main reason a unitary executive branch won is due to the separation of powers established by the three-branch governmental structure (The Constitutional Convention, 2012). Therefore, a president would never be able to wield the power of a true monarch (The Constitutional Convention, 2012). Madison’s original idea in the Virginia Plan was to have the presidential figure elected by the legislature; however, his idea carried little support and thus an alternative had to be found (Collier & Collier, 2007). Some delegates wanted a direct election, but in the late 18th century, information traveled too slowly and inefficiently to use a direct election (Collier & Collier, 2007). The delegates eventually were able to agree on an electoral college system for presidential elections (Collier & Collier, 2007). With the main debates out of the way, the first draft of the Constitution was ready to be created.
On July 26th, with the delegates satisfied for the moment, the Constitutional Convention adjourned to allow a group of people known as the Committee of Detail to draft the new Constitution (Beeman, 2009). The Committee of Detail was led by John Rutledge and contained other prominent figures such as James Wilson, Oliver Ellsworth, and Edmund Randolph (Beeman, 2009). When drafting the Constitution, the Committee of Detail strived to include only essential details and ensured that only simple and precise language was used (Beeman, 2009). Plenty of minor changes came during the series of discussions and drafts, but the most notable was the Necessary and Proper Clause. The Necessary and Proper Clause was added to protect the power of Congress over the states by allowing Congress to make any laws deemed necessary and proper (Collier & Collier, 2007). The large power of the Necessary and Proper Cause specifically came from the broad nature of which it could be applied, thus seemingly having no limits (Collier & Collier, 2007). On August 6th, the Committee of Detail had finally created the first draft, but the debates would continue until the final draft and signing were finished in September (Collier & Collier, 2007).
With the most integral matters discussed in the first session, there were still many issues to be addressed when the Constitutional Convention reformed on August 6th (Collier & Collier, 2007). One of these issues was the importation of African slaves. George Mason strongly opposed the continued importation of African slaves as he believed it was wrong and worried that the “infernal creatures” would overpopulate American lands (Collier & Collier, 2007). George Mason gained support from the northern delegates, but was strongly opposed by the southern delegates and thus an agreement had to be found (Collier & Collier, 2007). To compromise, it was decided that Congress could take no action on the matter before the year 1808, however, imported slaves would be taxed at $10 per person (Collier & Collier, 2007). The second session of the Constitutional Convention was also responsible for the decision of a four-year presidential term and the refinement of the methods by which Constitutional amendments are proposed and ratified (Collier & Collier, 2007). After nearly a month of debates over changes to the first draft, the delegates were restless, tired, and eager to bring this meeting to a quick, but fruitful end (Collier & Collier, 2007). The committee in charge of drafting the final document that would become the Constitution consisted of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King, and William Samuel Johnson (Collier & Collier, 2007). Under the chief draftsman, Gouverneur Morris, the Constitution was quickly and masterfully written (Collier & Collier, 2007). The final draft was presented to the delegates on September 12th, 1787 and debated until the 17th, at which time it was submitted for signing (Collier & Collier, 2007). Despite the majority of the Constitutional Convention supporting the final draft, there were still many delegates opposed to the document; however, the opposition was less than thirty percent of the total delegates, thus they decided to simply withdraw from the convention as the Constitution would be approved with or without them (Collier & Collier, 2007). Of the total fifty-five delegates, thirteen left and three refused to sign (Collier & Collier, 2007). Regardless, the thirty-nine signatures received were enough to send the Constitution out to states for its final step, ratification (Collier & Collier, 2007).
In the long fight for ratification, two powerful and influential groups were at the forefront (Maier, 2011). The men in favor of ratification were the Federalists (Maier, 2011). Those who were opposed to the Constitution became known as the anti-Federalists (Maier, 2011). Both groups had famous and renowned men heading their cause. The Federalists had Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, while the anti-Federalists leaders were George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams (Maier, 2011). Stuck in political gridlock, in order to achieve ratification, the Federalists were forced to promise a Bill of Rights, an anti-Federalist demand, to gain the favor of the remaining states (Maier, 2011). June 21st, 1788 became the day that many Americans had been waiting for, or dreading for some, as the ninth state ratified the proposed Constitution, making it the official Constitution for the United States of America (Maier, 2011). Starting on March 4th, 1788, the Constitution would go into effect, propelling the United States into a new form of government and laying the foundation for the development of an economic and military powerhouse (Maier, 2011).
The Constitutional Convention became a defining moment in U.S. History, one that would continue to shape the country for generations to come. The new Constitution was responsible for establishing the strong central government that would cure the United States of the sickness that was the Articles of Confederation. America’s new powerful three-branch government with separated powers and the ability to check each other has withstood the test of time and allowed the country to thrive. If the Constitutional Convention had never taken place, and the Articles of Confederation remained, the United States would have either crumbled on its own or been weak enough that a foreign power could swoop in and take control once again. America is forever indebted to the brilliant minds of its Founding Fathers. Their tireless efforts prevented a national crisis and allowed for the young nation to flourish.
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