#OnThisDay: 1787 US Constitutional Convention

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.

Photo by Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash

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.

Territories

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.

State Constitutions

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.

Photo by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash

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.

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.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Alejandro Barba on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Hussain Badshah on Unsplash

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?

Janet  

What I Read in June 2019

My reading was sporadic again in June. Perhaps it’s the nice summer weather that’s pulling me outside and into other activities. I listened to one complete book, finished reading a book I’d started reading in May, and I read a short story by Ron Rash. I started several other books, but you’ll have to wait and hear about them in August (if I finish reading them in July.)

Here are my impressions of what I did read.

Iron House, by John Hart

Iron House, by John Hart

In my June 17, 2019 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/17/delving-deeper-into-dialects-and-accents-in-fiction/, I wrote about listening to Iron House, by John Hart and being distracted by the exaggerated Southern accent used by the professional reader on the audio edition of the novel. Since then, I looked at a print edition of the book to see how the dialogue was written. As I expected, it was written properly – not like it was portrayed on the audio. I should have read the book and skipped the audio edition.

I reread much of the book in printed form and got a lot more out of it than I did when trying to listen to it. The story is set in North Carolina. Iron House is the name of a reformatory school for boys. The story is primarily about the lives of two boys who were sent to Iron House.

Enough background is included for the reader to get a feel for the dreadful place, but then follows the one who got away, how his years at Iron House damaged him and turned him into a killer. He wants to turn his life around, but he soon finds out how difficult it will be to rid himself of the lowlifes he has associated with.

It is not a pleasant read. So far, it is my least favorite of John Hart’s novels. I will continue to give everything he writes a try, though. This hasn’t turned me against his writing. I just won’t listen to any of his future books.

The First Conspiracy:  The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

I read 70% of this nonfiction book in May, then had to get on the waitlist at the public library in order to finish reading it in June. I have a habit of trying to read too many books, so this happens more often than I’d like.

If you missed my comments about this book in my June 3, 2019 blog post, ­­­­https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/06/03/4-or-5-books-i-read-in-may-2019/ , I invite you to click on this link and read it if this true story interests you. I really liked this book. It filled in some gaps in my American history education.

Until I read this book, I had no idea there was a conspiracy within the ranks of the Continental Army to kill General Washington in the early summer of 1776! To tell you how far that conspiracy reached within the ranks of the army would give too much away. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

 “My Father Like a River,” a short story by Ron Rash

This short story by Ron Rash grabbed my attention from the opening line and held it to the end. In this story, Mr. Rash recalls a frightful day of fishing in the New River in Watauga County, North Carolina in 1962 with his father and brother.

Ron’s brother got caught up in the river’s currents. It is the story of how his father reacted and the example his father gave to his family in this horrifying event and throughout his life as he lost a good-paying management job and rebuilt a life for his family on a much lower income.

Since my last blog

I submitted two true stories for possible publication in future Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Writing fiction and writing real life are quite different. The writing I did last week proved to me that I prefer writing fiction. It will be months before I know if either of my submissions will be published, but you know I will announce the verdicts in my blog.

Until my next blog

I hope you have a good book to read. In addition to other books, I’m still reading ­­­­­­­­­­­­ Montauk, by Nicola Harrison.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

Let’s continue the conversation

What are you reading? Would you recommend it?

While I still have your attention, please tell one other person about my blog either in person or via social media. Thank you!

Janet

Late July Reading

Another month has whizzed by and left me getting ever more behind in reading all the books I want to read, but July was another rewarding month of reading for me. I hope you’ll enjoy reading “my take” on the three books I read the last couple of weeks of July. On July 17 (Reading South Africa and South Carolina Novels) I blogged about the two books I read earlier in the month.

The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff

I kept reading about The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff and decided I wanted to read it. It was the first book I’d read by Ms. Jenoff, who has a fascinating background in government work. I look forward to reading her other books.

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         The Orphan’s Tale,           by Pam Jenoff

The Orphan’s Tale revolves around a toddler who is rescued from the Nazis by a young woman who is no longer welcome in her parents’ home. She ends up being taken in by a circus and assigned to the trapeze, although she knows nothing about being an aerialist.

The woman assigned to train her resents her. Throughout this book of numerous twists and turns, the two women resent each other, support each other, and risk their lives for each other. It is a tale of humanity, forgiveness, trust, friendship, love, and loss set in Germany and France during World War II.

Bird-by-Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

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Bird-by-Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

As someone learning the art and craft of writing, I enjoyed Bird-by-Bird, by Anne Lamott. In the book’s introduction she writes about learning to love books as a child. The following quote comes from the introduction:

“The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” ~ Anne Lamott

I set out to write about the many things I liked about this book and the beautiful way Ms. Lamott writes about the many things a novelist needs to pay attention to in the writing process. It soon became obvious that today’s blog post would be longer than anyone wanted to read if I did that. Therefore, I will write about Bird-by-Bird in my August 14, 2017 blog post.

The Midnight Cool, by Lydia Peelle

I read this book because it was set in Tennessee during World War I. I haven’t read many novels set in that era and I wanted to learn more about it. I’m participating in the Read America Book Challenge from the Mint Hill Branch of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The object of that challenge is to read novels set in as many different US states as possible in 2017. Thirteen down and 37 to go. Seven months down and five to go. Hmmm. Not good.

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      The Midnight Cool,         by Lydia Peelle

I was conflicted as I finished reading The Midnight Cool. Lydia Peelle has a way with words, but I found the book hard to follow since the dialogue was not enclosed within quotation marks. It was tedious to have to go back a couple of paragraphs at times in order to discern who was speaking.

I was interested in the subject matter, but the middle of the book did not hold my attention. I enjoyed the last 50 or so pages of the book, so I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. For all the hype of the book to be about mules for World War I and a killer horse, I found it to be more about the two men who traded in mules and the women they loved.

The book gave me some things to think about that I really hadn’t considered before, such as the massive number of mules the United States transported across the Atlantic in ships to pull artillery and do other hard labor in the Allies’ war effort in Europe.

I learned that horses have to be trained, but mules more readily reason things out. (Don’t hate me, horse lovers!) According to the book, the only thing the mules had to be trained in was being fitted with gas masks. Gas masks for mules was another thing that had never crossed my mind. This goes to show that you can learn things from reading well-researched historical novels.

The website, http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/farming/animals/father-of-the-american-mule/, confirms that George Washington was the “Father of the American Mule.” The site explains that there were advantages that mules had over horses in the Allies’ efforts in World War I in addition to their not needing much training. Mules eat one-third less than horses, they don’t need to drink as much water as horses, and mules are more surefooted than horses.

If Lydia Peelle writes another novel, I will check it out because she has a gift for turning a phrase and I believe she does her research.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time. I also recommend that you read Bird-by-Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

Janet

George Washington Ate Here

That’s quite a change from my usual blog post titles! My post a few days ago was rather “heavy” in that it was about the things I think I need to do this year to further my writing career. I’m glad that’s out of the way now, so I can get back to more interesting topics. Today I’m doing something I haven’t done before in my blog. I’m sharing a small sample of my writing.

Did You Know?

I wrote a local history column titled, “Did You Know?” in Harrisburg Horizons, a weekly newspaper here in Cabarrus County, North Carolina from May 2006 through December 2012. It was a perfect opportunity for me as it allowed me to do two of my favorite things:  historical research and writing. It was my first freelance writing job. I had complete control over when I worked on the column and what topics I chose. I had a deadline every two weeks, but the day-to-day freedom the work gave me was a perfect fit for me. Once-a-month in 2017 I plan to share one of my newspaper columns or an essay or short story I’ve written. Today’s offering is a slightly edited version of my May 31, 2006 newspaper column.

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George Washington Ate Here

President George Washington didn’t sleep here, but did you know that he ate in Harrisburg? That might be a wee bit of a stretch, but on Sunday, May 29, 1791, he ate a meal where Charlotte Motor Speedway now sits. Most locals still consider the speedway to be in Harrisburg, although it is now in the Concord city limits.

Colonel Moses Alexander and his wife, Sarah, purchased the land from Henry McCulloch and built a house. Col. Alexander died around 1772. Sarah married Robert Smith and he moved into her home.

Robert Smith was a Colonel in the British Army prior to the American Revolution. He took up arms to fight for American independence and rose to the rank of Major General.

The Smiths named their plantation “Smithfield.” The house survived into the 1960s and stood just a few feet from US-29. It served as the ticket office for the Charlotte Motor Speedway for several years.

The beloved Revolutionary general and sitting United States President, George Washington, took a tour of The South in 1791. As a result of that tour, there are numerous historical markers titled, “George Washington Slept Here.” There is no such roadside marker at the corner of US-29 and Morehead Road, but there should be one that says, “George Washington Ate Here.” President Washington spent the night of May 28, 1791 in Charlotte. After noting in his diary that the village was “a trifling place,” he traveled northeast out The Great Wagon Road which was a forerunner of US-29.

Open the Gate and Roam Cabarrus With Us,” by Adelaide and Eugenia Lore, states that President Washington traveled “in a coach of pale ivory and gilt.”

C.E. Claghorn III’s book, Washington’s Travels in the Carolinas and Georgia, says the President “was accompanied by Major William Jackson, five servants, two footmen, coachmen & postilion [guide], chariot & four horses, light baggage wagon drawn by two horses, four saddle horses plus one for himself.”

The green meadows and hardwood forests of our area probably reminded the President of his Virginia homeland. Our red clay rolling hills were in stark contrast to the sandy South Carolina Lowcountry he visited on his way to North Carolina.

Can you imagine how nervous Sarah Smith was on the days leading up to the President’s arrival? It would be interesting to know the menu she planned. Being late May, the summer staples of squash and beans were not in season.

Mrs. Smith’s spring garden possibly provided turnips, radishes, and an assortment of greens and herbs. No doubt a servant retrieved a well-cured country ham from the log smokehouse for the occasion. In my mind’s eye, I see a bowl of fresh wild strawberries on the dining table or perhaps strawberry shortcake with fresh cream drizzled on top for dessert.

I would have liked to have been privy to President Washington and Gen. Smith’s conversation. Perhaps the President “broke the ice” by asking Smith about the battles he participated in during the Revolution. They probably discussed political matters of the day such as the moving of the nation’s capital from New York City to Philadelphia the previous year.

After dining at “Smithfield,” President Washington returned to his coach and traveled to Colonel Martin Phifer’s “Red Hill” tavern near the Poplar Tent section of the county. He lodged at “Red Hill” that night before continuing on toward Salisbury at four o’clock the next morning.

Until my next blog post, I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.  Feel free to Tweet about my blog or share it on other social media.

Janet

Sources I used as I researched this newspaper column’s subject:

Piedmont Neighbors:  Historical Sketches of Cabarrus, Stanly and Southern Rowan Counties, edited by Clarence D. Horton, Jr. and Kathryn L. Bridges.

Open the Gate and Roam Cabarrus With Us, by  Adelaide and Eugenia Lore, 1971.

The Historic Architecture of Cabarrus County, North Carolina, by Peter R. Kaplan, 1981.

A Light and Lively Look Back at Cabarrus County, North Carolina, by Helen Arthur-Cornett, 2004.

Washington’s Travels in the Carolinas and Georgia, by C.E. Claghorn III.

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