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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

US Constitutional Convention Convened, May 25, 1787

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Today in 1787, 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies assembled in Philadelphia for the United States’ first Constitutional Convention. Between May and September of that year, the federal government as we know it today came into existence. It is not an exaggeration to say that this convention was the most important founding event in American history.

Prior to the creation of the US Constitution, the 13 colonies formed a loose alliance governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were drafted and ratified during the Revolutionary War, and so they left unanswered many questions that would so plague the convention-goers in 1787. Furthermore, the Articles established a very weak federal government that was unable to pay its many foreign debts and stood no chance of raising an army capable of defeating a large foreign invasion. A brief recession in 1786 was the final proof to many that radical change was needed.

Still, the Convention was convened with the intention of revising the Articles of Confederation. It soon became apparent, however, that most of the delegates came to town intent on reinventing the government from scratch. Several plans were put forward.

First was the Virginia Plan, mainly the creation of James Madison. The idea of a bicameral legislature was his, as was a judiciary made up of members who served for life. The New Jersey Plan was presented by William Paterson and called for Congress to have the right to set taxes and to create laws which took precedence over state law.

Some of the delegates put forth plans of their own, including Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s plan called for a President and Senate that would be elected for life and a House of Representatives that would hold elections every three years. This sounded suspiciously like a monarchy-in-the-making to many of the delegates, and his plan was dismissed with little consideration. Hamilton’s opinions would be used against him in later years.

Roger Sherman of Connecticut, concerned about the possibility of large states gaining all the power in the new government, proposed that seats in the House of Representatives be granted based on a state’s population, but that each state have equal representation in the Senate. As the Convention proceeded, Sherman’s idea gained ground and was eventually adopted. Today, we call Sherman’s plan The Great Compromise.

Slavery was a thorny issue at the Convention. Initially, it was thought that only free persons should be counted towards a state’s population. The southern states, which were less populous, wanted to count slaves in the population totals. In the end, a compromise was reached that seems incomprehensible to us today: each slave would be counted as only 3/5 of a human being. It was also decided that slavery would not be outlawed in the nation before January 1, 1808. It is very possible that, without this compromise, the Constitution would not have been ratified. The rift that would become a civil war in 80 years was already evident.

In the end, the US Constitution is a set of compromises and some of the delegates did not like the finished product. Of the 55 delegates, 16 either left early or refused to sign the document. Benjamin Franklin may have summed it up best when he said:

“...I doubt, too, whether any other Convention...may be able to make a better find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies...”

Today, the United States Constitution is the old written document of its kind still in use anywhere in the world.

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