The Constitutional Convention


The Failings of the Articles of Confederation

The major problem with the Articles was the lack of power given to the central government.  A weakened central government could not stand up to the state nor to the power of European countries.  This lack of power became prevalent in three major factors:

Lack of Money: Many states never paid requested taxes while a few provided only a small amount.  After the Revolutionary War, America could not pay loans taken out to finance the war.

No Authority with Foreign Relations: Even though the Articles gave central government control over foreign policy they could not enforce it on other countries or states.  Britain refused to leave their forts out west, refused fair trading with America, and sued for payments of pre-Revolution debts.  Spain refused to recognize America as a country and African pirates relentlessly plundered American ships around Caribbean.

Lack of Military Force: The lack of money and authority severely hindered America’s military, who was allowed a standing military of less than a thousand men.  This weak military presence was a large factor in Britain’s refusal to leave their forts out west, Spain threatening western lands, and the increase of raids on the seas by pirates.

Shays Rebellion: The Tipping Point

In 1786 the Massachusetts government, in order to pay off debts, raised the tax on land.  Many landowners and farmers, unable to pay the higher taxes, lost their land or went to debtor’s prison.  Their requests for help going unnoticed, the farmers began harassing tax collectors and court officials.  In September, 600 men led by Captain Daniel Shays marched to Springfield, forcing the supreme court to disband, delaying sentencing on delinquent tax payers.  In January 1787, they marched again on Springfield with around 1000 men and attacked the arsenal.  The defending Massachusetts militia fired into crowd, killing several men and caused the revolt to collapse.

Both central and state governments feared a snowball effect.  Similar but less violent clashes had already happened in several other states.  Government officials were afraid Shays Rebellion would spur more groups to rebel, take up arms, and attack local government buildings, causing mob rule and destruction across the country.

The Anapolis Convention: The Lead Up to the Constitutional Convention

In September 1786 James Madison requested Congress hold a convention to discuss interstate commercial issues on the Potomac River, known today as the Annapolis Convention.  A poor turn out (only twelve members from five states) mimicked years of problems in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation.  Attendance in Congress had been on the decline with more members staying in their states.  Over the years, state governments have been gaining power and the confidence to get work done.  They were now the places to go to for protection, military, funding, and settling disputes.

It was at the Annapolis Convention where a resolution was passed to amend the Articles of Confederation.  It was approved of unanimously by the twelve members.  Word was sent to the states who sent delegated down to Philadelphia in May of 1787.  Fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to attend) began the process of creating a new form of government.

The Virginia and New Jersey Plans: A Basis for a New Government

The Virginia Plan, spearheaded by James Madison, was the first to be presented to the Convention.  His plan called a new constitution and outlined the basic powers of government.  He suggested a three pronged approach to government: a two house legislative (Congress), an executive branch (president), and a judicial (federal judges and the Supreme Court).  Representation and votes were to be based on the states population.  Electing members to Congress would begin with the public electing the lower legislative branch (todays House) then the House members would elected the upper branch (todays Senate) and the Senate would elect the head of the executive branch.

Several weeks into the debate over the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan was presented.  It proposed keeping the Articles one vote per state, scrapped the Senate, and the House and executive would elect each other bypassing citizens voting.  Congress, feeling the New Jersey Plan was a weaker plan, voted to keep the Virginia plan.

The Great Compromise

Two topics under the Virginia Plan were debated for months: representation and slavery.

Originally the Virginia Plan called for representation by population in both the House and Senate.  States with large populations pushed for this while less populated states, fearing they would be overpowered by the larger states, wanted to keep one vote per state like the Articles of Confederation.  With representation based on population for the House passing weeks earlier, the smaller states dug in their heels, creating a deadlock on representation for the Senate.

The southern states were a strong voting block and also dug in their heels.  They wanted to count their slaves in their total population to increase their representatives, but did not want to pay property or head tax on them.  The Northern states wanted to ban slavery, but the southern states threatened to abandon the Convention if slavery was abolished.  By July 2nd, a month and a half into the Convention the Congress was deadlocked on representation for the Senate: five for, five against, and 1 abstaining.

A small committee was created to continue to debate with a representative from each state present (NH hand not arrived yet).  Within a few weeks, the presented the Great Compromise.  The compromise suggested the House be represented by population while the Senate be the same number of seats for all the states and each state would have one representative in the House per every 40,000 people.  The compromise did not ban slavery, but suggested the Three Fifths Rule: for every five slaves counted as three freedmen for both taxation and representation in Congress.  It was passed by Congress on July 26th.

Creating the Drafts of the Constitution

With three months’ worth of debates, notes, and decisions, the next step in the Convention was creating the Constitution.  From July 26th to August 6th the Committee of Detail worked on creating the first draft of the Constitution while the other members of the Convention received some time off.  The committee took the notes and discussions and added a few new provisions to make sure the national government could not abuse its power.  On August 6th, sixty copies of the seven-page document were printed and given to Congress.

Committee of Detail’s draft was debated in Congress, line by line, adding notes and corrections in the margins.  It was sent to the Committee of Postponed Parts who debated questions relating to taxes, declaring war, patents and copyrights, and Native American tribes.  It also adopted the electoral college, set the executive’s term at 4 years, and gave impeachment powers to the Senate.  On Sept 8th, copies of the new four-page draft were printed and sent to the Committee of Style who, from the 8th to the 12th, added the finishing touches and edits.  It was sent back to Congress who, late on September 17, 1787 unanimously accepted the Constitution.