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The 1780s has often been termed the “Critical Period” for the new nation. The dangers posed by economic crisis and the disillusionment that came with the collapse of Revolutionary expectations for dramatically improved conditions combined to make the decade a period of discontent, reconsideration, and, in the end, a dramatic new proposal for redirecting the nation. Just as the Revolution had been born of diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives, even among the Patriots, so too, ideas about the future of the United States in the 1780s were often cast in dramatic opposition to one another.
The new plan for the nation was called the Federal Constitution. It was drafted by a group of national leaders in Philadelphia in 1787, who then presented it to the general public for consideration. The Constitution amounted to a whole new set of rules for organizing government and indicates how much had changed since 1776.
The proposed national framework called for a strong central government that would have authority over the states. At the same time, the proposed Constitution also involved the people in deciding whether or not to accept the new plan through a process called ratification.
This plan was much closer in spirit to the British government that the colonists had overthrown than the loose confederation of states they created during the Revolution, which begs the question: does the Constitution embody our founding beliefs?
For some Founding Fathers, the new form of government was the best way to protect the hard-won liberties so eloquently articulated by Jefferson in 1776. However, for Jefferson, and many others, the Constitution and its emphasis on strong centralized government was a knife in the back of those very ideals.
What do you think? Does the Constitution embody our founding beliefs?
At the time Daniel Shays and his followers were attempting to force the government to take a new course of action in response to hard times, another group of Americans gathered to consider a very different vision for the future of the republic. The group was especially concerned about economic policy and the way that competing state policies often worked at cross-purposes. Responding to such concerns, the Virginia legislature called for a convention to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786 to discuss commercial matters. Only twelve delegates came from five states, but they agreed to meet again the next year in Philadelphia.
When Shays’ Rebellion erupted, colonial leaders had even stronger reasons to meet to discuss plans for responding to the range of problems of the 1780s. Following on the possibility of widespread popular unrest that Shays’ Rebellion had shown was entirely possible, the Congress, in January 1787, directed the meeting to consider revisions to the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia drew fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to send anyone to a meeting about strengthening the power of the central government). Most of the delegates had gained national-level experience during the Revolution by serving as leaders in the military, the Congress, or as diplomats. The impressive group included many prominent Revolutionary leaders like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Robert Morris. Some of the older leaders of the Revolution, however, were not present. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were abroad serving as diplomats to France and England, respectively.
Meanwhile, key local leaders like Sam Adams of Boston had lost his bid to be a delegate, while the Virginian patriot Patrick Henry was elected, but refused to go because he opposed the purpose of the Convention. In their place were a number of younger leaders who had been less prominent in the Revolution. Most notable among them were the Virginian James Madison and Alexander Hamilton of New York.
These national political heavyweights, known to us know as the Founding Fathers did not, however, include people from western parts of the country, nor did it include any artisans or tenant farmers. Indeed, there was only a single person of modest wealth whom we could consider a yeoman farmer. These were superstars and that meant that they did not reflect anything close to the full range of American society. Partly because the delegates had already served as national representatives, they shared a general commitment to a strong central government. Many were nationalists who thought the Articles of Confederation gave too much power to the states and were especially concerned about state governments’ vulnerability to powerful local interests. Instead, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention aimed to create an energetic national government that could deal effectively with the major problems of the period from external matters of diplomacy and trade to internal issues of sound money and repayment of public debt.
In spite of the common vision and status that linked most of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, no obvious route existed for how to revise the Articles of Confederation to build a stronger central government.
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James Madison, who is appropriately remembered as the Father of the Constitution would later serve as the fourth president.
The meeting began by deciding several important procedural issues that significantly shaped how the Convention operated. First, George Washington was elected as the presiding officer. They also decided to continue the voting precedent followed by the Congress where each state was allotted one vote.
Perhaps most importantly, they agreed to hold their meeting in secret. There would be no public access to the Convention’s discussions and the delegates agreed not to discuss matters with the press. The delegates felt that secrecy would allow them to explore issues with greater honesty than would be possible if everything that they said became public knowledge. In fact, the public knew almost nothing about the actual proceedings of the Convention until James Madison’s notes about it were published after his death in the 1840s.
The delegates also made a final crucial and sweeping early decision about how to run the Convention. They agreed to go beyond the instructions of the Congress by not merely considering revisions to the Articles of Confederation, but to discard it entirely and try to construct a whole new national framework.
The stage was now set for James Madison, the best prepared and most influential of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention. His proposal, now known as the Virginia Plan, called for a strong central government with three distinctive elements.
First, it clearly placed the federal government above the state governments. No longer would the federal government be depended on the will of the states.
Second, the powerful central government would have a close relationship with the people, who could directly vote for some national leaders.
Third, Madison proposed that the central government be made up of three distinct branches to separate power: a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. The lower house of the legislature would be elected directly by the people and then the lower house would elect the upper house. Together they would choose the executive and judiciary.
By having the foundational body of the proposed national government elected by the people at large, rather than through their state legislatures, the national government would remain a republic with a direct link to ordinary people even as it expanded its power.
Madison’s Virginia Plan was bold and creative. Further, it established a strong central government, which most delegates supported. Nevertheless, it was rejected at the Convention by opposition from delegates representing states with small populations. These small states would have their national influence dramatically curbed in the proposed move from one-state one-vote to general voting for the lower legislative house where overall population would be decisive.
The smaller states, countered with another proposal, dubbed the New Jersey Plan that would continue along the lines the Articles of Confederation. This plan called for a unicameral legislature with the one vote per state formula still in place.
Although the division between high and low population states might seem simplistic, it was the major hurdle that delegates to the Convention needed to overcome in order to design a stronger national government.
After long debates and a close final vote, the Virginia Plan was accepted as a basis for further discussion. This agreement to continue to debate also amounted to a major turning point. The delegates had decided that they should craft a new constitutional structure to replace the Articles. This was so stunning a change and such a large expansion of their original instructions from the Congress that two New York delegates left in disgust.
CONSTITUTION THROUGH COMPROMISE
Representation remained the core issue for the Philadelphia Convention. What was the best way for authority to be delegated from the people and the states to a strengthened central government?
After still more deeply divided argument, a proposal put forward by delegates from Connecticut, a small population state, struck a compromise that was narrowly approved. They suggested that representatives in the two houses of the proposed bicameral legislature be selected through different means. The upper house, or Senate, would reflect the importance of state sovereignty by including two people from each state regardless of size. Meanwhile, the lower house, the House of Representatives, would have different numbers of representatives from each state determined by population. Representation would be adjusted every ten years through a federal census that counted every person in the country.
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The interior of the Capitol rotunda as it appears today. Paintings of famous events in American history adorn the walls. Wings on the North and South ends of the building house the Senate and House of Representatives.
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Marine One, the president’s helicopter arrives at the South Lawn of the White House. First called the Presidential Palace, it was given its current name after the building was painted after being burned by the British in the War of 1812.
By coming up with a mixed solution that balanced state sovereignty and popular sovereignty tied to actual population, the Constitution was forged through what is known as the Connecticut, or Great Compromise. In many respects this compromise reflected a victory for small states, but compared with their dominance in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation it is clear that negotiation produced something that both small and large states wanted.
Other major issues still needed to be resolved, however, and, once again, compromise was required on all sides. One of the major issues concerned elections themselves. Who would be allowed to vote? The different state constitutions had created different rules about how much property was required for white men to vote. The delegates needed to find a solution that could satisfy people with many different ideas about who could have the franchise, that is, who could be a voter.
For the popular lower house, any White man who paid taxes could vote. Thus, even those without property, could vote for who would represent them in the House of Representatives. This expanded the franchise in some states. To balance this opening, the two Senators in the upper house of the national government would be elected by the state legislatures. Finally, the president, that is, the executive branch, would be elected at the state level through the Electoral College whose numbers reflected representation in the state legislatures.
To modern eyes, the most stunning and disturbing constitutional compromise by the delegates was over the issue of slavery. Some delegates considered slavery an evil institution and George Mason of Virginia even suggested that the trans-Atlantic slave trade be made illegal by the new national rules. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia where slavery was expanding rapidly in the late-18th Century angrily opposed this limitation. If any limitations to slavery were proposed in the national framework, then they would leave the convention and the plan for a stronger central government would fizzle. Their fierce opposition allowed no room for compromise and as a result the issue of slavery was treated as a political, rather than a moral, question.
The delegates agreed that a strengthened union of the states was more important than the Revolutionary ideal of equality. This was a pragmatic, as well as a tragic, constitutional compromise, since it may have been possible, as suggested by George Mason’s comments, for the slave state of Virginia to accept some limitations on slavery at this point.
The proposed constitution actually strengthened the power of slave states in several important respects. Through the Fugitive Clause, for example, governments of free states were required to help recapture runaway slaves who had escaped their masters’ states. Equally disturbing was the Three-Fifths Compromise, which established a method for determining representation in the lower house of the legislature. Slave states wanted to have additional political power based on the number of human beings that they held as slaves. Delegates from free states wouldn’t allow such a blatant manipulation of political principles, but the inhumane compromise that resulted meant counting enslaved persons as three-fifths of a free person for the sake of calculating the number of people a state could elect to the House of Representatives.
In the end, the Founding Fathers all agreed, without saying so aloud, that slavery was a topic too controversial to discuss, and for the first decades of the nation’s existence, it was an issue ignored. Like a growing tumor, however, the question of ending slavery would continue to be a problem that American public officials could not find a way to resolve.
After hot summer months of difficult debate in Philadelphia from May to September 1787, the delegates had fashioned new rules for a stronger central government that extended national power well beyond the scope of the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was the supreme law of the land. The proposed rules also would restrict state actions, especially concerning passing pro-debtor laws. At the end of the long process of creating the new plan, thirty-eight of the remaining forty-one delegates showed their support by signing the proposed Constitution. This small group of national political superstars had created an entirely new plan for government through hard work and compromise.
Now another challenge lay ahead. Could they convince the people in the states to accept the new plan?
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The Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC sits across a plaza from the Capitol. The first Supreme Court met inside the Capitol, but eventually moved to its own home.
WE THE PEOPLE
The Constitution is not a particularly exciting document to read. It is at its heart a set of rules explaining how government works. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, it contains little in the way of inspirational prose. But the Preamble is unlike the rest of the documents. In it, the Founding Fathers explained why government exists. For example, they designed the new government to unite the states, to provide defense against foreign threats, provide for a system of justice, improve the lives of Americans, and preserve liberties for future generations.
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The famous words as they appear on the Constitution itself.
Most famously, however, the Preamble’s first three words explicitly declare that the government’s power is derived from the consent of the citizens. Yet these words – We the People – were followed in the first draft of the Preamble by a listing of all the states. It seems that even then, after having negotiated all the compromises that made national unity possible, Americans still had a hard time thinking of themselves first and foremost as citizens of a singular, unified nation.
In their later life, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a long correspondence in which the two founders worked out their differing views of the Revolution and its meaning. For Adams, the Constitution was the best incarnation of the nation’s founding ideals. The Constitution separated power between branches, provided for checks and balances, shared power with local governments, and protected essential individual rights.
For Jefferson, the Constitution represented a dangerous move toward centralized power. It was a door for wealthy elites to wield power over the nation’s yeoman farmers.
What do you think? Does the Constitution embody our founding ideals?
BIG IDEA: The creation of the Constitution and our current system of government was due to problems that existed in the late 1780s and was the result of a series of compromises. The Founding Fathers tried to enshrine the ideals of the Revolution in a functioning system of government.
Colonial leaders met in Philadelphia to find solutions to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Their first important decision was to discard the Articles altogether and start over.
George Washington served as the Constitutional Convention’s president, but James Madison was the intellectual leader and primary author of the new system of government.
One important debate was the nature of the legislature. Populous states wanted a legislature that would have representation based on population. Smaller states promoted a plan for equal representation for each state. The Great Compromise produced our current Congress with a House of Representatives and a Senate.
The Founding Fathers were concerned about too much democracy. They created the Electoral College as a forum for debate in the selection of the president, thus insulating the president from the fickle will of the people. Our strange system of electing presidents today in a winner-take-all system is due to this early decision.
The Constitution protected slavery. It included requirements that states help return runaway slaves and gave slaves states extra representatives in the House. Slaves could be counted as 3/5 of a person.
The Preamble lays out the purpose of government. Its opening words “We the People” emphasize the idea that government represents the people’s wishes and is chosen by the people.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
James Madison: Father of the Constitution and later 5th President.
Alexander Hamilton: First Secretary of the Treasury. He was a Federalist, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers during the debate over ratification of the Constitution. His financial plans included assuming state debts, creating a national bank, and promoting manufacturing. He was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr.
Founding Fathers: The American leaders who led the nation through the Revolution, establishment of the new government, and in the first years of the Constitution. They include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.
Senate: The upper house of Congress. Each state has two representatives who serve for six-year terms.
House of Representatives: The lower house of Congress. Representation from each state is based on population and members serve two-year terms.
President: The chief executive in the American government.
Electoral College: A group of electors selected from each state who officially vote for president.
Virginia Plan: Plan for government proposed at the Constitution Convention that included a unicameral legislature with representation based on population.
Separation of Powers: Principle that legislative, executive and judicial power should be divided between different people/groups in government to avoid tyranny.
Bicameral: A legislature with two separate groups or bodies of representatives. Legislation must pass both bodies.
Legislative Branch: The group of people in a government responsible for drafting and approving laws.
Executive Branch: The person or group in government responsible for carrying out laws.
Judicial Branch: The person or group in government responsible for mediating disputes and interpreting the meaning of laws.
New Jersey Plan: Plan for government proposed at the Constitution Convention that included a unicameral legislature with each state receiving equal representation regardless of population.
Census: A count of the entire population every ten years in order to determine representation in the House of Representatives.
Great Compromise: Compromised negotiated by James Madison at the Constitutional Convention resulting in a bicameral legislature with the Senate including two representatives from each state and the House with representation based on population.
Three-Fifths Compromise: A compromise negotiated at the Constitutional Convention in which slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person in counting population to determine representation in the House of Representatives.
Constitutional Convention: Meeting of American leaders in 1787 and chaired by George Washington. Under the guidance of James Madison they discarded the Articles of Confederation and drafted the Constitution.
LAWS & RESOLUTIONS
Fugitive Clause: A clause in the Constitution requiring states to recapture runaway slaves.
Supreme Law of the Land: Nickname for the Constitution referencing the fact that no laws or government actions can be counter to the Constitution.
Preamble: Opening paragraph of the Constitution. I outlines the purpose of government and opens with the words “We the People…”
We the People: First three words of the Preamble to the Constitution indicating that government is an extension of the will of the people.