From May 25 to September 17, 1787 a convention took place which would forever alter the political landscape of America; we know it as the Constitutional Convention. In 1781 The Articles of Confederation went into effect; creating our first formal system of government. The purpose of this confederation is stated in Article III of these Articles of Confederation, which states, “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
It was almost unanimously believed that the Articles of Confederation needed amending to give Congress more power; especially in regards to raising revenue. On February 21, 1787 Congress made the following declaration, “That it be recommended to the States composing the Union that a convention of representatives from the said States respectively be held at on for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the United States of America and reporting to the United States in Congress assembled and to the States respectively such alterations and amendments of the said Articles of Confederation as the representatives met in such convention shall judge proper and necessary to render them adequate to the preservation and support of the Union.” The date for this convention was set for May to give the States time to choose their delegates and allow for travel to Philadelphia were the convention was to be held.
It is important to note that the only authority these delegates had were to act as representatives of their respective States in proposing such amendments to the Articles of Confederation that would give the existing government the powers needed to manage the affairs of the Confederacy.
Prior to the call even being sent out for delegates to attend this convention, there were those who felt that the current system of government was inefficient and weak, and that a completely new system be built. James Madison was the primary driving force behind the scenes working to construct a completely new system; not overhaul the old one.
Madison had been giving this much thought prior to Congress calling for a convention to amend the existing Articles of Confederation. Once a date was set Madison went to work sending out correspondence to those he felt were sympathetic to his cause; particularly George Washington. In a letter dated April 16, 1787 Madison laid out his basic plan for a new, stronger system of government.
Madison believed the States to be too strong, that their jealousy towards their sovereignty was a stumbling block to an effective central government and that any new system of government must place the central government above the States. For instance, in his letter to Washington Madison writes, “Conceiving that an individual independence of the States is utterly irreconcileable with their aggregate sovereignty; and that a consolidation of the whole into one simple republic would be as inexpedient as it is unattainable, I have sought for some middle ground, which may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful.”
Just useful, but that’s not all Madison wanted for any new central government; he wanted it to have an absolute veto over all laws passed by the State Legislatures, “Over and above this positive power, a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States, as heretofore exercised by the Kingly prerogative, appears to me to be absolutely necessary, and to be the least possible encroachment on the State jurisdictions.” Remember, Madison wrote this a month before the convention even began.
Once the convention began one of the first orders of business was that the delegates be sworn to secrecy about the proceedings; not a word was to be spoken to their States or to the media about what took place behind the closed doors of the assembly. This secrecy was so offensive to some that ardent patriot Patrick Henry declared, “I smell a rat in Philadelphia.”
Our public school system makes much ado about the convention which produced our Constitution, yet they fail to tell us that it was not the grand meeting of minds, all working together to produce this amazing document. Little mention is made of the fact that Rhode Island refused to send any delegates to the convention at all while two of Alexander Hamilton’s fellow delegates from New York; Robert Yates and John Lansing Jr left the convention because they were upset over it overstepping its delegated authority to simply amend the Articles of Confederation as did Luther Martin of Maryland. Also we are not told how Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia stayed until the end, but refused to sign the document once it was completed.
Madison’s blueprint for the new government, or the Virginia Plan as it has come to be known, was the basic framework upon which our Constitution is built. Yet it took much debate, with some wondering whether anything productive would ever get accomplished, before a final document was produced. One delegate would write after the convention convened that at times he felt the convention “…was on the verge of dissolution, scarce held together by the strength of an hair.” George Washington, who aligned himself with Madison’s views, spoke harshly of the delegates who sought to retain more power for the State governments, calling them “narrow minded politicians.”
It seemed that everyone had their own view as to what powers this new government they were creating would have, and how it would be formatted. Alexander Hamilton suggested a national ‘governor’ serving for life and that the State governors would be chosen by the national governor. Hamilton based his idea upon the British system of government, calling it the “best in the world.” Fortunately, Hamilton’s plan was rejected by the delegates; believing it to go too far even for those who sought a much stronger central government.
Although the basic framework for our Constitution lies with the plan suggested by Madison, there are some things that he asked for that he ended up not getting. In fact, Madison made seventy-one proposals with forty of them being voted down. Among those was his hope that the government would have an absolute veto over all laws passed by the State Legislatures. He was sorely disappointed when the choosing of Senators was given to the States; believing it to be too much influence being held by the States thereby weakening the federal government.
Finally though, although both Madison and Hamilton both found reasons to be disappointed with the final document, a Constitution was written. But before the delegates were asked to vote on it a speech prepared by Benjamin Franklin was read to the convention by James Wilson.
Here is Franklin’s speech in its entirety:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others. Most Men indeed as well as most Sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Steele, a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only Difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong. But tho’ many private Persons think almost as highly of their own Infallibility, as of that of their Sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French Lady, who in a little Dispute with her Sister, said, I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with no body but myself that’s always in the right. Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.
In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet hereafter for the Purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good. I have never whispered a Syllable of them abroad. Within these Walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the Objections he has had to it, and use his Influence to gain Partisan in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary Effects and great Advantages resulting naturally in our favour among foreign Nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent Unanimity. Much of the Strength and Efficiency of any Government, in procuring and securing Happiness to the People depends on Opinion, on the general Opinion of the Goodness of that Government as well as of the Wisdom and Integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own Sakes, as a Part of the People, and for the sake of our Posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our Influence may extend, and turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours to the Means of having it well administered.
On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a Wish, that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would with me on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his Name to this instrument.
Finally the Constitution was put to a vote with only 39 of the original 55 delegates affixing their signatures to it. Madison may not have gotten everything he’d hoped for at the outset, but he did get a much stronger central government than the one which existed under the Articles of Confederation. Now it was up to the people to either accept the plan or to reject it.
to be continued…