The Constitutional Convention
In 1785, George Washington hosted representatives from Virginia and Maryland to discuss problems arising from the navigation of the Potomac River. The success of this conference led the Virginia legislature to call for all the states to send delegates to a conference at Annapolis to address the commercial difficulties facing the nation. In September 1786, representatives from five states gathered at Annapolis. Too few to pursue the meeting's agenda, James Madison, John Dickinson, and Alexander Hamilton persuaded their fellow delegates to call for a convention to meet the next May in Philadelphia to discuss constitutional change. Congress duly endorsed the proposal.The Convention Gathers
Every state but fractious Rhode Island eventually sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention. A total of fifty-five men attended the convention for all or some part of its length. Thirty-nine would eventually sign the result of these deliberations.
Most of the delegates were relatively young men; the average age was forty-two. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate at eighty-one; Alexander Hamilton was only thirty-two. The delegates had been tempered by experience with war and government. Twenty-one had fought in the war. Seven had been governors. Eight had signed the Declaration of Independence. The majority had served in Congress. John Dickinson captured the framers' practical turn of mind when he wrote, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”
Before the Constitutional Convention was called to order on May 14, 1787, the news of Shays' Rebellion gave many of the delegates a greater sense of urgency. Most were propertied men who instinctively feared the disorder Daniel Shays symbolized. Most of them also were nationalists who believed the United States needed a government stronger than the Articles of Confederation allowed. Service in the Continental army in particular had given many men a national perspective that made them impatient with the local orientation of so many of their countrymen.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were uneasily aware of the growing democratization of the country. Prior to the Revolution, about 20 percent of the men serving in state legislatures were middling farmers and artisans. By the end of the Revolution, that percentage had doubled.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were united by some common political and philosophical assumptions. All were agreed on the necessity of republican and representative government. The greatest threat to popular government was the inevitability of human selfishness and folly. As a consequence, checks and balances were necessary to ensure that abuses of power could be controlled.Debating a New Constitution
George Washington was elected president of the convention in a unanimous vote. The delegates also closed their deliberations to the public and press. The purpose of this was to reduce the possibility that external pressures or political grandstanding would distort the work of the convention. The delegates were successful in maintaining secrecy during months of debate.
James Madison played a critical part in the proceedings. His notes are our primary record of the Constitutional Convention. He also proposed the Virginia Plan, which shaped the subsequent discussions. His plan called for a transformation of American federalism, creating a truly national government. The centerpiece of the Virginia Plan was a national legislature, divided into two houses. The numbers of representatives in each house would be based on population. The representatives would vote individually instead of contributing to a single vote by their state's delegation, as was the case under the Articles of Confederation. Thus, the legislators represented the people, not the interests of the states. Congress would have the power to overrule state laws and to pick a chief executive and federal judiciary.
Delegates from the smaller states believed that their interests would be swamped by the power of the large states in the new national legislature. Madison's plan seemed to go too far in limiting the power of the states. William Paterson of New Jersey submitted the New Jersey Plan as a response. He called for all the states to have equal representation in a unicameral Congress. This Congress would have the authority to regulate commerce and the power to tax. It could also appoint executive officers and a national judiciary.
For much of the summer, the delegates at the convention debated the merits of these plans. Other vexing issues arose, such as the question of slavery and the representation accorded slaveholders. Roger Sherman of Connecticut took the lead in proposing a compromise in the Connecticut Plan. In the new Congress, the House of Representatives would be based on proportional representation. In the Senate, every state legislature would select two senators.
James McHenry, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland, believed that twenty-one delegates favored some form of monarchy. Alexander Hamilton openly called for a constitutional monarchy modeled on that of Great Britain. This regard for a national figurehead led to the creation of a strong presidency.
Other compromises were hammered out. For the purposes of representation, every slave would count as three-fifths of a person. The importation of slaves would be taxed and prohibited after 1808. A system of checks and balances was established; the creation of a strong executive, a national judiciary, and a national legislature — itself balanced between the Senate and the more “democratic” House of Representatives — would ensure that the states were efficiently governed.