• Exploring American History

Constitutional Convention gets underway

At the urging of Edmund Randolph and James Madison, a meeting was called to revise the Articles of Confederation into a workable plan of government that would bind the country together. The earlier Annapolis Convention had previously been called with the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation”, intending to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.

On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention was called to order, composed of 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies. Returning to Independence Hall, the same place many of them had previously met for the Continental Congress and later signed the Declaration of Independence. Rhode Island chose not to send delegates, fearing the new system the delegates decided on would be detrimental to the state’s economy.

Per the urging of James Madison, fellow Virginian George Washington consented to attend and was soon named the convention’s presiding official by unanimous vote. Now known as the Framers of the Constitution, those in attendance with Madison and Washington were well-educated and most were in their 30s and 40s. Benjamin Franklin was one of several exceptions to that. 81-years-old when the convention began, he held the title of the oldest delegate.

The task assigned to them was to resolve problems faced by the young country. Numbered among the problems to be addressed were:

  • Tariffs being levied by different states on goods shipped from one state, passing through a second state, en route to a third.

  • A tax base to support an army and/or navy.

  • The need to set policy and manage the Northwest Territories due to the high number of settlers making their way into the territory following the American Revolution.

  • The need for a coherent foreign policy that reflected the needs of the entire country.

In the book, A Brilliant Solution, historian Carol Berkin states, “These men (the Founding Fathers) inhabited a world alien to modern Americans, a world in which the United States was a fragile, uncertain experiment, a newcomer, and to some degree a beggar at the gates of power and prestige among nations. In 1787, our treasury was empty. Debts to foreign governments and debts to our own citizens could not be paid, and this was a blow to the nation’s honor as well as to its future credit. How could European nations deal with this rag-tag collection of states, each going its way? The United States was certainly not ‘united’ and could not truly be called a nation.”

Two schools of thought were immediately presented – 1) revise the Articles of Confederation or 2) scrap the whole thing and create something new and better. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison threw their support behind the idea of new and better.

Though he was only 26 at the time of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison had studied in great detail from the numerous books sent to him by Thomas Jefferson on the subject of various government systems. What he learned from these books, coupled with the distress he felt about the weakness seen in the Articles of Confederation, led Madison to compose a document that became known as the Virginia Plan. He then submitted his plan to the convention for approval. Much of what he wrote found its place in the Constitution, earning him the title “Father of the Constitution”.

Before getting underway, the Framers assembled a rules committee to establish ground rules for the convention. When the convention announcement went out, no statements were made with respect to how many delegates each state could send to the gathering. A rule was passed, however, stipulating each state would have one vote and one vote only. This ensured the voting process was fair to all. If, for example, Virginia chose to send 10 representatives and Connecticut only one, Connecticut’s one representative would still have as loud a voice and as much say-so as Virginia. Each of Virginia’s delegates would be allowed to voice his opinion on a given matter; however, when it came time to cast a vote, the 10 representatives were required to decide among themselves in which way Virginia’s one vote would be cast.

Once the voting rule was established, a presiding officer needed to be chosen. That honor soon went to George Washington. His years serving as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army had won for Washington the respect of his countryman and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention held him in high regard. As presiding officer, Washington’s first responsibility was to maintain order and keep the meeting flowing in an orderly and effective manner. Considering the many viewpoints being expressed by the numerous delegates, this was no small task.

In addition to the one-vote-per-state rule, the Rules Committee also stipulated that all proceedings during the convention would be kept totally secret. Everything that was discussed behind closed doors would remain there until the convention adjourned with a completed document. To help ensure this, guards were posted at all windows and doors in an effort to keep everything said within the room and away from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears.

The time required for the Constitutional Convention was four months, start to finish. Due to the difficulties with travel and having to endure bad weather, not all 55 delegates were present at all times. During the timeframe in which the Constitution was actually written, approximately 35 of the delegates were in attendance.

In the early days of the convention, it was decided the Articles of Confederation would be scrapped in favor of new and better. The Framers knew the situation regarding the election of the Senate and whether executive power would be placed in the hands of one individual or would it be triune in nature were just two of the situations that must be addressed and resolved.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Legislative Branch was composed of one unit. Two schools of thought were now presented for consideration – the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan.

The Virginia Plan reflected the views Madison held as a strong nationalist and was well received by the other Virginia delegates, as well as those in attendance from Pennsylvania. In it, a state’s population would determine the number of representatives it had in Congress. The smaller states quickly expressed opposition to this idea, knowing the adoption of this plan would for the most part silence them.

On June 15, 1787, William Paterson presented the New Jersey Plan (aka – Small State Plan or Paterson Plan). This plan supported the idea of two representatives for each state, regardless of population. Both James Madison and Edmund Randolph quickly voiced their opposition.

Throughout the convention, due to concern for secrecy, doors and windows were kept closed. With no method of air conditioning available at that time and the number of individuals in attendance, the heat index was on the rise. The temperature in the room also paralleled that of many tempers. This resulted in an “ever-present danger that the Convention might dissolve and the entire project be abandoned.” per Charles Evan Hughes.

By the end of June, with threats and accusations heavy in the air between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Benjamin Franklin rose to address George Washington and fellow delegates. As he did, he included the words of Psalm 127:1:

I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of me. And, if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I, therefore, beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Unfortunately for Franklin, Congress had no funds to hire a chaplain. Thankfully, God already had His messenger in the congregation; and when he spoke, people listened. Enter Roger Sherman.

A highly respected delegate from Connecticut, Roger Sherman offered to the members the solution that resolved the disagreements between the Virginia and New Jersey Plans with what was later referred to as the “Connecticut (Great) Compromise”. Sherman’s recommendation was that instead of one unit, the Legislative Branch should be bicameral in design and utilize the best of both plans. In keeping with the New Jersey Plan, one part would be the Senate in which each state would have two senators. This satisfied the smaller states. The other half of the Legislative Branch would be based on the Virginia Plan and became a House of Representatives with each state’s member count determined by its population. For every 30,000 individuals comprising a state’s population, the state would have one representative in the House. This satisfied the larger states. (See FYI 1)

Though they endured a great deal of adversity, the Framers stayed with it and created a new form of government. Gouverneur Morris of New Jersey was then called upon to be the scribe for the Constitution. In a matter of two days, Morris transcribed the 4,300-word document.

On September 17, 1787, 41 of the 55 delegates were in attendance for the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. Of those 41 delegates, 38 signed the document now known as the Constitution of the United States. Article VII of the document dictated, however, the Constitution would not become the law of the land until it was ratified by at least nine states.

On December 7, 1787, five states were quick to ratify the Constitution – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut. Other states were not so quick to line up for various reasons. Massachusetts, for example, stood in opposition to the Constitution, due to the fact it did not protect basic political rights, such as speech, religion and the press; in addition to the fact, it failed to address states’ rights. Massachusetts, Maryland and South Carolina later agreed to ratify the document with the understanding these issues would be addressed and rectified.

On June 21, 1787, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, thereby fulfilling the ratification requirement. The Constitution of the United States became the law of the land on March 4, 1789. In June, Virginia became the 10th state and New York the 11th in July. After North Carolina became the 12th to do so, Rhode Island was left on the sideline with its disgruntled attitude. Annoyed with several factors regarding currency and slavery, Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution after being told the new U.S. government would sever commercial relations with Rhode Island unless it signed-on-the-dotted-line. On May 29, 1790, the smallest state in acreage ratified the Constitution with the smallest majority of votes – two.

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