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The Constitutional Convention

Even before Shays’ Rebellion, prominent Americans were thinking of means to strengthen the Articles of Confederation. James Madison and others met with George Washington at Mount Vernon in 1785, to discuss commercial issues relating to Virginia and Maryland.

One recommendation from that meeting was to convene a group of delegates from the states to discuss alterations of the Articles. Only five states sent representatives to Annapolis in the fall of 1786, but Alexander Hamilton’s recommendation to convene another reform meeting in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787, was forwarded to the Continental Congress.

Two ground rules would govern the convention proceedings. First, all deliberations were to be kept secret. (Detailed word about the debates remained guarded until the publication of Madison’s notes in 1840.) Second, no issue was to be regarded as closed and could be revisited for debate at any time.

The Convention convened on May 25, 1787, at the State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. It opened eleven days later than planned because of the slow arrival of some delegates. All of the states were represented except for Rhode Island, which declined to attend.

Washington, noted for his patience and fairness, was selected as the presiding officer. In all, 55 delegates attended. Though often regarded as great sages by later generations, the delegates were largely lawyers, merchants, and planters who represented their personal and regional interests.

What was remarkable, however, was the degree to which the delegates managed to subordinate those interests at crucial times in order to reach a series of compromises. Many were experienced in colonial and state government, and others had records of service in the army and in the courts. Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence and 17 were slave owners.

Interestingly, a number of prominent figures of the day did not attend, including Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.

The stated goal of the Convention — the revision of the Articles of Confederation — was quickly discarded, and attention given to more sweeping changes. Discussion turned instead to two competing concepts of how a new government should be formed, the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan.

The Virginia Plan was favored by the big states. It envisioned a bicameral legislature with both houses having membership proportional to population. The New Jersey plan was favored by the small states. It called for each state's representation in each house to be equal to every other state's. The impasse was resolved by the Connecticut Compromise, which split the difference. The upper house (Senate) would have equal representation from each state. The lower house (House of Representatives) would allocate membership in proportion to population.

Although not present in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson kept abreast of developments from his post in Paris and corresponded regularly with acquaintances in Congress and at the convention. One of the points he strove to make was the need for an independent executive, to attend to the details that the Congress was incapable of handling.

The delegates considered whether the legislature should be elected directly by the people or by the state legislatures. The usual arguments against allowing too great an influence from an unsophisticated electorate were met by George Mason, who observed that legislatures were subject to improper pressures, and Madison, who argued that at least one of the two bodies should be elected directly. This became the compromise position.

In determining the population which, in turn, would determine the number of members each state would have in the House of Representatives, the question of slaves was considered. No one suggested that slaves should vote, and the free states argued that they should not be counted at all. The slaveholding states, on the other hand, felt that free and slave should all be counted. The final compromise was the make the House depend on the free population plus three fifths of the slaves.

At one point, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts observed to the delegates that if they admitted too many Western states, they would eventually "oppress our commerce and drain out wealth into the Western country." He proposed limiting the number of potential new states so that they would never outnumber the Eastern states. In response, Sherman retorted that there was no probability that the new Western states would ever outnumber the original thirteen. Gerry's recommendation was defeated.

The finished Constitution has been referred to as a "bundle of compromises." It was only through give-and-take that a successful conclusion was achieved. The Framers of the Constitution had gone far beyond revising the Articles of Confederation.

By conferring extensive new powers, the Convention gave the federal government full power to levy taxes, borrow money, establish uniform duties and excise taxes, coin money, fix weights and measures, grant patents and copyrights, set up post offices, and build post roads.

The national government also had the power to raise and maintain an army and navy and to regulate interstate commerce. It was given the management of Indian affairs, foreign policy and war. It could pass laws for naturalizing foreigners and controlling public lands, and it could admit new states on a basis of absolute equality with the old.

The power to pass all necessary and proper laws for executing these clearly defined powers, enabled the federal government to meet the needs of later generations and of a greatly expanded body politic.

On the final day, Benjamin Franklin acknowledged that there were parts of the proposed constitution that were not to his liking, but also noted that he had been obliged at times in his life to change what he had considered to be a settled opinion. He urged all the delegates to lay aside any reservations they felt and sign the document with him.

At the end of three and a half months, 38 of the 55 delegates signed the document and adjourned to the City Tavern for libations and a final dinner. The Constitution was conveyed to the Congress, which, in turn, decided to pass the matter along to the states for ratification.

See United States Constitution narrative.