HGov: Constitutional Convention


Constitutional ConventionThe Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia met between May and September of 1787 to address the problems of the weak central government that existed under the Articles of Confederation. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the Convention. The result of the Convention was the creation of the United States Constitution.

The Virginia Plan, written mainly by James Madison, was clearly designed to replace the Articles, not to revise them. It called for a government of three branches. The legislative branch would make the laws, the executive branch would carry out the laws, and the judicial branch would interpret the laws. Under the Virginia Plan, the new government would have a bicameral, or two-house, legislature. The Virginia Plan proposed that representation in both houses should be based on the population of each state. This would give the more populous states more representatives, and thus more influence, than states with smaller populations.

William Patterson of New Jersey introduced an alternative approach. The New Jersey Plan proposed a series of amendments to the Articles of Confederation. These changes would have created a somewhat more powerful national government with a unicameral, or one-house, legislature in which all states had equal representation.

Finally, Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a compromise designed to satisfy both sides. His plan called for a bicameral legislature with a different form of representation in each house. In the Senate, states would have equal representation. In the House of Representatives, states would have representation based on their populations. Sherman’s plan, known as the Great Compromise, resolved the issue of representation in Congress and allowed the convention to move forward.

Other issues also divided the delegates. Those from northern states differed with those from southern states on questions of slavery and commerce. Many northern delegates wanted the constitution to include a provision for abolishing slavery. But most southerners opposed ending a system of labor on which their agricultural economy depended. These differences over slavery spilled into debates on representation and taxes. Since most slaves lived in the South, delegates from the South wanted slaves to be counted when determining representation in the House of Representatives. Yet they did not want slaves counted when determining each state’s share of taxes to support the national government. Delegates from the North wanted slaves to be counted for taxation, but not when determining representation. After much debate, the delegates reached another important compromise. For purposes of both representation and taxation, a slave was to be counted as three-fifths of all free persons. The Three-Fifths Compromise helped hold the new nation together.

Delegates from the North and South also argued over commerce. Northerners favored giving Congress broad powers to control trade. Southerners worried that Congress might outlaw the slave trade and place heavy taxes on southern exports of crops. Once again the delegates reached a compromise. Congress would have the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, but it could not tax exports, and it could not outlaw the slave trade until 1808.

Another major issue concerned the formation of the executive branch. Some delegates wanted a single executive to head the government. Others were concerned that giving power to a single leader might give rise to a monarchy or tyranny, favored an executive committee made up of at least two members. In the end, the delegates voted for a single president. The delegates thought a special body called the Electoral College would be made up of electors from each state who would cast votes to elect the president and vice president. Each state would have as many electors as the number of senators and representatives it sent to Congress.

The Constitution included a provision for ratification. To go into effect, the new plan of government would need to be ratified by at least 9 of the 13 states. Ratification was to take place at state conventions made up of delegates elected for this purpose. Success was by no means assured. The pro-ratification effort was led by supporters of the Constitution who called themselves Federalists. They favored the 32 federalist v antifederalistcreation of a strong federal government that shared power with the states. Their opponents were known as Anti-Federalists. These were people who preferred the loose association of states established under the Articles of Confederation. The battle between these two groups was played out in the press, in state legislatures, and at the state ratifying conventions.

By January 1788, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey had ratified the Constitution. Georgia and Connecticut soon followed. In Massachusetts, however, the ratifying convention deadlocked over a key issue: the lack of a bill of rights. After much debate, the Massachusetts delegates agreed to ratify after receiving assurance that such a list of rights would be added after ratification. A number of other states ratified with the same understanding. By the summer of 1788, all but two states had ratified. The Constitution was now in effect. North Carolina would join the new union in 1789, and Rhode Island in 1790.

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