In doing the research necessary to refresh my memory enough to write today’s blog post, I discovered just how close the United States came to failing in the 1780s. As a younger student of history, I didn’t grasp the fragility and gravity of the situation. In an effort to stabilize and save the new nation, a constitutional convention was called for in the spring of 1787. Today’s blog post will attempt to give you an idea about what necessitated that convention which opened 233 years ago today.
It was a contentious time. It was a time of trial and error as the former colonists, who had just won a war for independence from Great Britain against all odds, faced the difficult work of creating a nation and there was no guide book for them to follow.
The Articles of Confederation
The Continental Congress agreed on “Articles of Confederation” in November 1777. The document formed more of an alliance than a nation. The Articles gave Congress the power to wage war, conduct diplomacy, and arbitrate disputes between the various states. Each state had one delegate. Going to war required nine of the 13 votes in favor. All 13 states had to ratify the Articles of Confederation in order for them to go into effect. Any amendments also required unanimous votes.
Congress could not, under the Articles of Confederation, enact laws. In fact, it had to rely on the states to recruit soldiers for the Continental Army. States were free to regulate trade and enact laws and the Congress had no power over them.
State boundaries needed to be established and states needed the authority to maintain authority within those boundaries. The Articles of Confederation left too much to chance and interpretation.
How could the 13 states go about forming a union with only the Articles of Confederation holding them together? They feared creating a Congress strong enough to interfere with issues within the individual states. After all, they knew what life was like under a strong central government. In today’s vernacular, they would have said, “Been there. Done that.” They knew what they didn’t want in a national government, but it wasn’t easy to agree on what they wanted or needed.
Small states wanted a federal government that could control westward expansion. They feared that, without a strong central government, states like Virginia and New York would prosper financially from selling their western lands and, therefore, become more solvent and more attractive to settlers than the smaller states.
Virginia and New York eventually relinquished their claims on “western lands.” That was enough to persuade Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation on February 2, 1781 –finally making ratification of the Articles unanimous and complete.
To begin to address the problems associated with western expansion, Congress started establishing temporary territories that could later become states. I’ll get into some of the details of how that was carried out in a blog post planned for July 13, 2020 on the anniversary of the adoption of the third Northwest Ordinance in 1787.
By the end of 1776, 10 states had adopted constitutions. Connecticut and Rhode Island still operated under their charters. Massachusetts didn’t adopt a state constitution until 1780.
Most of the state constitutions began with a stated bill of rights. A free press, freedom of religion, the right to petition, trial by jury, and due process under the law were the items most states included in their constitutions. Most of them made it clear that the people wouldn’t stand for hereditary offices. In other words, there would be no American aristocracies.
In reaction to the royal governors the states’ residents had suffered under, the state constitutions limited executive power. They limited who could vote: only white men who owned enough property to support a family. It was believed if a man had a landlord, he would not be free to vote his own mind. Several states restricted those men who could serve in their legislatures to the very wealthy.
After the Revolutionary War
Although the Americans won the war for independence, they had paid a big price in deaths and the economy. The new country had no silver or gold mines to back an economy. Fortunately, many British and other European merchants offered American businessmen credit because they were eager to reestablish trade with their former clients. However, the British blocked America from trading with the West Indies. That restriction was instrumental in plunging American merchants into debt in the years after the war.
A recession followed the war while the new country tried to get on its feet. There were economic inequalities between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” so not much has changed in two and half centuries.
Frustration increased as states racked up debt and taxed citizens. In Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Hampshire farmers began to mobilize much as the Regulators had prior to the revolution. They went so far as to block county courts from meeting so farm foreclosures could not be processed. Some states chose to forgive debts in an attempt to avoid armed conflict. Seven of the 13 states started printing paper money.
Conservatives started having misgivings about the outcome of the war. They saw many states as being too democratic, and they started calling for a Constitutional Convention.
James Madison’s input
James Madison was turned to for advice. He had studied state governments and concluded a popular majority could govern every bit as tyrannically as a monarch. He said that the rich minority should be protected from the poorer majority.
Conventional wisdom of the day was that a republic had to be small so representatives could really know their constituents. Madison bucked that theory. To quote from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Alan Taylor’s book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Madison thought that if voters had a larger population from which to elect their leaders, “the purest and noblest characters” would be elected to office. (I wonder if he would still hold to that belief today.)
Madison met with Alexander Hamilton and 10 other “nationalists” in September 1786 to draft an appeal to Congress to call for a constitutional convention. Congress wanted the Articles of Confederation to remain but agreed to call a convention to write amendments. Congress also stipulated that the amendments would have to be approved by Congress and each state legislature.
The nationalists feared that the country would plunge into anarchy and the result would either be a monarch or a splintering of states into several confederations.
What happened 233 years ago today?
A Constitutional Convention was scheduled to open on May 25, 1787 in Philadelphia with the purpose of revising and strengthening the Articles of Confederation. However, what happened over the next four months was the drafting of the United States Constitution.Tweet
Every state except Rhode Island sent delegations to the convention. James Madison convinced George Washington that he should attend as a Virginia delegate. As a group, the 55 delegates were elitists. More than half of them held college degrees. More than half of them owned slaves. None represented the populist views of the farmers and other citizens of modest means.
The convention was held in what is now known as Independence Hall. On the first day, George Washington was unanimously elected to preside over the group. The doors and windows were kept shut and they agreed to a strict code of secrecy. No outsiders were allowed inside.
What transpired over the next four months?
Delegates came and went as the weeks went by. In fact, all 55 were never in attendance at the same time. Though multiple delegates came from each state, each state was allowed only one vote. Just as seems to be the rule instead of the exception with American politicians in 2020, they talked a good talk about “the common good,” but they all fought for their own state’s interests.
“The Virginia Plan” was presented on May 29. It called for a bicameral legislature with both houses having a number of representatives based on population. It called for a powerful national government with an executive branch and a judicial branch in addition to the legislative branch. Smaller states didn’t like the Virginia Plan.
The “New Jersey Plan” was presented in mid-June. Under that plan, there would be only one legislative body and much of the government would continue as it was under the Articles of Confederation.
Believing both plans were weak, Alexander Hamilton presented is own plan on June 18 in a five-hour harangue. He maintained that Great Britain had the best government in the world and that America should copy it. Under Hamilton’s plan, the electoral college would elect the president and senators and they would serve for life! Only the House of Representatives would be elected by popular vote of the people. Congress would not have the power to override a presidential veto. All state governors would be appointed by the national government.
For the next month, the delegates debated the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, not thinking the majority of citizens would accept the British model championed by Alexander Hamilton. They were essentially deadlocked until Benjamin Franklin and the Connecticut delegation presented a plan whereby there would be a bicameral legislature. Each state would have equal representation in the Senate, but representation in the House would be based on population. That compromise plan was adopted on July 16 by a vote of five to four. The Massachusetts delegation could not agree on which way to vote.
The following day, July 17, seven of 10 delegations voted against Hamilton’s idea that the national government should be able to veto state laws. They also voted to prohibit states from issuing paper money.
Another point of contention for the convention was slavery. Slaves made up about four percent of the population of northern states and about 40 percent of the population of Southern states. Southern delegates wanted a national government strong enough to protect their property rights but not strong enough to emancipate slaves.
Since virtually all the delegates regarded blacks as inferior to whites, the debates came down more to regional interests than the morality of slavery. The compromise that was struck was the “three-fifths clause” which said that three-fifths of slaves would count in the allocation of congressional seats and presidential electors. In essence, it meant that a slave was considered to be only three-fifths of a person.
In August, 1787, as the hot and humid Philadelphia summer dragged on, there was heated debate over the future of the slave trade. The Georgia and South Carolina delegates wanted to continue to bring slaves from Africa, but the upper-southern states had more slaves than they needed. They wanted to be able to sell their slaves to planters in the Lower South when the African slave trade ended.
But the South Carolina and Georgia delegates valued continued slave trade more than they valued the national union. They threatened to pull out of the convention. By doing so, they called the bluff of Northern delegates who prospered from the slave trade through their shipping and shipbuilding interests. The Northern delegates wanted the national government to enact “navigation acts” that would favor northern vessels over foreign ones and would increase shipping costs for Southerners.
Slave-holding states lobbied for a fugitive-slave clause under which northern states were required to return runaway slaves to their owners. Euphemisms were used in the constitution they were drawing up in order to avoid using the words “slaves” or “slavery.”
The United States Constitution, therefore, protected slavery through the three-fifths clause, the “fugitive-slave clause, and by approving the slave trade for an additional 20 years. These compromises proved to be short-sighted. They appeared necessary to preserve the union, but they set the United States on a long-term racial division that still exists 233 years later.
The convention spent more time figuring out the national legislative branch than it did the executive branch. It was assumed that George Washington would be the first U.S. President, so the constitution created a strong executive. Both houses of Congress would need a two-thirds majority vote to override a Presidential veto. The president and vice-president would be elected to four-year terms and could be reelected indefinitely. State legislatures would choose the electoral college and that group would elect the president and vice-president.
Not much time was spent on the judicial branch. A Supreme Court would be created and Congress would have the power to create courts that would serve subordinately to it. It was made clear that state laws and courts would be trumped by U.S. laws, treaties, and the U.S. Constitution.
US Constitution signed on September 17, 1787
After numerous heated debates, 39 of the 42 delegates who had hung in there that long, signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. The governor of Virginia refused to sign it. Fellow-Virginian George Mason said he’d rather chop off his hand than sign it. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t pleased with the final document, but he signed it because he feared the alternative was anarchy.
As difficult as the convention had been, the hard work lay ahead as each state had to ratify the Constitution. It would take a year to accomplish that, but that is a story for another day and another blog post.
Since my last blog post
I’ve spent more time reading nonfiction than fiction. My brain is tired. I’m listening to Long Bright River, by Liz Moore.
Until my next blog post
I look forward to concentrating on reading fiction in the coming days.
I hope you have a good book to read.
If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.
Thank you for taking time to read my long blog post today. It was longer than I wanted it to be, but I concluded that anyone truly interested in the topic would read it and anyone not interested in the topic wouldn’t read it no matter how short or long it was. I hope I judged correctly.
Let’s continue the conversation
What jumped out at you in today’s blog post? What surprised you?