The Philadelphia Convention (now also known as the Constitutional Convention, the Federal Convention, or the "Grand Convention at Philadelphia") took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, to address problems in governing the the United States of America, which had been operating under the Articles of Confederation following independence from Great Britain. Although the Convention was purportedly intended only to revise the Articles of Confederation, the intention of many of its proponents, chief among them James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was from the outset to create a new government rather than to attempt to address the problems of the existing one. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the convention. The result of the Convention was the United States Constitution. The Convention is one of the central events in the history of the United States and the benefits of freedom and liberty are still in evidence today.
The convention failed to resolve successfully the question of slavery, as those who opposed its continuation relented in order for the U.S. Constitution to be passed. Tragically, this compromise deemed necessary at the time is now considered a failure which remains as part of the fabric of American society and race relations.
Before the Constitution was drafted, the 13 colonies operated under the Articles of Confederation, created by the Second Continental Congress which eventually caused deep divides between the states that the national government could not resolve.
In May 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. Recommended changes included granting Congress power over foreign and domestic commerce, and providing means for Congress to collect money from state treasuries. Unanimous approval was necessary to make the alterations, however, and Congress failed to reach a consensus.
In September, five states assembled in the Annapolis Convention to discuss adjustments that would improve commerce. Under their chairman, Alexander Hamilton, they invited state representatives to convene in Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the federal government. Although the states' representatives to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were only authorized to amend the Articles, the representatives held secret, closed-door sessions and wrote a new constitution.  On January 21, 1786, the Virginia Legislature, following James Madison's recommendation, invited all the states to discuss ways to reduce interstate conflicts in Annapolis, Maryland. At what came to be known as the Annapolis Convention, the few state delegates in attendance endorsed a motion that called for all states to meet in Philadelphia in May, 1787 to discuss ways to improve the Articles of Confederation in a "Grand Convention."
Due to the difficulty of travel in the late 1700s, very few of the selected delegates were present on the designated day of May 14, 1787, and it was not until May 25 that a quorum of seven states was secured. The convention convened in the Pennsylvania State House, and George Washington was unanimously elected as president of the convention. Although William Jackson was elected as secretary, Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 remain the most complete record of the convention.
Under the leadership of George Washington, the deliberations were sometimes contentious, as the interests of the various states, which had helped to undermine the effectiveness of the Articles of Confederation resurfaced. At one point discussions broke down and Alexander Hamilton went home. Progress remained elusive until wise elder statesman Benjamin Franklin stood up and gave a prescient speech in which he stated that creation of the Constitution was a unique opportunity for a people to create a government based on reason and goodness, not the will and power of a military conqueror. He pleaded for humility and recommended the Convention begin each day with prayer to orient them to a higher purpose. This speech marks the turning point for drafting the Constitution.
The Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to revise and enlarge the Articles of Confederation, which had produced a weak and inadequate national government. Prior to the start of the convention, the Virginian delegates met, and using Madison's thoughts, work, and notes; came up with what came to be known as the Virginia Plan, also known as the "Large State" Plan. For this reason, James Madison is sometimes called the "Father of the Constitution." Presented by Virginia governor Edmund Randolph on May 29, 1787, the Virginia Plan proposed a very powerful bicameral legislature. It was, however, Edmund Randolph, another Virginia delegate, who officially put it before the convention on May 29, 1787, in the form of 15 resolutions.
The scope of the resolutions, going well beyond tinkering with the Articles of Confederation, succeeded in broadening the debate to encompass fundamental revisions to the structure and powers of the national government. The resolutions proposed, for example, a new form of national government having three branches—legislative, executive and judicial.
One contentious issue facing the convention was the manner in which large and small states would be represented in the legislature, whether by equal representation for each state, regardless of its size and population, or by proportional representation, in which larger states would have a larger voice. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state was represented in Congress by one vote.
According to their plan, both houses of the legislature would be determined proportionately. The lower house would be elected by the people, and the upper house would be elected by the lower house. The executive would exist solely to ensure that the will of the legislature was carried out and would therefore be selected by the legislature. The Virginia Plan also created a judiciary, and gave both the executive and some of the judiciary the power to veto, subject to override.
Plan of Charles Pinckney
Immediately after Randolph finished laying out the Virginia Plan, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina presented his own plan to the Convention. As Pinckney did not supply a hard copy, the only evidence we have are Madison's notes; thus the details are somewhat sketchy. It was a confederation, or treaty, among the 13 states. There was to be a bicameral legislature made up of a Senate and a House of Delegates. The House would have one member for every one thousand inhabitants. The House would elect Senators who would serve by rotation for four years and represent one of four regions. Congress would meet in a joint session to elect a President, and would also appoint members of the cabinet. Congress, in joint session, would serve as the court of appeal of dernier resort in disputes between states. Pinckney did also provide for a supreme Federal Judicial Court. The Pinckney plan was not debated, but it may have been referred to by the Committee of Detail.
New Jersey Plan
After the Virginia Plan was introduced, New Jersey delegate William Paterson, asked for an adjournment to contemplate the Plan. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state was perfectly equal—each had one vote in Congress. The Virginia Plan threatened to limit the smaller states' power by making both houses of the legislature proportionate to population. On June 14/15, 1787, a small-state caucus met to create a response to the Virginia Plan. The result was the New Jersey Plan, otherwise known as the Small State Plan or Paterson Plan. It was debated for three days.
The plan was created in response to the Virginia Plan's call for two houses of Congress, both elected with proportional representation.
Paterson's New Jersey Plan was much closer to the original plan for the Convention–which was to draft amendments to fix the Articles of Confederation rather than to abandon it altogether. Under the New Jersey Plan, the current Congress would remain, but it would be granted new powers, such as the power to levy taxes and force their collection. An executive branch was also to be created, to be elected by Congress (the plan allowed for a multi-person executive). The executives would serve a single term and were subject to recall on the request of state governors. The plan also created a judiciary that would serve for life, to be appointed by the executives. Lastly, any laws set by Congress would take precedence over state laws. When Paterson reported the plan to the convention on June 15, 1787, it was ultimately rejected, but it gave the smaller states a rallying point for their beliefs. The less populous states were adamantly opposed to giving most of the control of the national government to the larger states, and so proposed an alternate plan that would have given one vote per state for equal representation under one legislative body. This was a compromise for the issue of the houses.
Unsatisfied with the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan, Alexander Hamilton proposed his own plan. It also was known as the British Plan, because of its resemblance to the British system of government. In his plan, Hamilton advocated getting rid of state sovereignty. The plan featured a bicameral legislature, the lower house elected by the people for three years. The upper house would be elected by electors chosen by the people and would serve for life. The plan also gave the Governor, an executive elected by electors for a life-term of service, an absolute veto over bills. State governors would be appointed by the national legislature, and the national legislature had veto power over any state legislation.
On July 16, 1787, Roger Sherman (1721-1793) and Oliver Ellsworth (1745 – 1807), both of the Connecticut delegation, forged a compromise, known as the Connecticut Compromise or the Great Compromise. This plan called for a bicameral legislature consisting of a lower and upper house. Sherman proposed: "[t]hat the proportion of suffrage in the 1st branch should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more." Although Sherman was well liked and respected among the delegates, his plan failed at first. It was not until July 23 that representation was finally settled.
In favor of the larger states, membership in the lower house, as in the Virginia Plan, was to be allocated in proportion to state population and candidates were to be nominated and elected by the people of each state. A census of all inhabitants of the United States was to be taken every ten years. Also all bills for raising taxes, spending or appropriating money, setting the salaries of Federal officers were to originate in the lower house and be unamendable by the upper house. In exchange, membership in the upper house, however, was more similar to the New Jersey Plan and was to be allocated two seats to each state, regardless of size, with members being chosen by the state legislatures.
By and large the compromise was accepted into the final form of the U.S. Constitution. The provision that all fiscal bills should start in the House was incorporated as Art. 1, §7, Clause 1 (known as the Origination Clause), albeit in a limited form applying only to tax bills and allowing the Senate to amend.
Many questions remained unresolved. Among the most important were the controversial issues surrounding slavery. Slaves accounted for about one-fifth of the population in the American colonies. Most of them lived in the Southern colonies, where slaves made up 40 percent of the population. Whether slavery was to be permitted and continued under the new Constitution was a matter of conflict between the North and South, with several Southern states refusing to join the Union if slavery were not allowed.
One of the most contentious slavery-related issue was the question of whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation in Congress or considered property not entitled to representation. Delegates from states with a large population of slaves argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation but as property if the new government were to levy taxes on the states on the basis of population. Delegates from states where slavery had disappeared or almost disappeared argued that slaves should be included in taxation but not in determining representation.
The Three-Fifths Compromise
Finally, delegate James Wilson proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise. Proposed by delegates James Wilson and Roger Sherman, the plan adopted was that three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted for enumeration purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives. After some wrangling, this was eventually adopted by the convention.
The final compromise of counting "all other persons" as only three-fifths of their actual numbers reduced the power of the slave states relative to the original southern proposals, but is still generally credited with giving the pro-slavery forces disproportionate political power in the U.S. government from the establishment of the Constitution until the Civil War.
Another issue at the Convention was what should be done about the slave trade. Ten states had already outlawed it. Many delegates heatedly denounced it, but the three states, Georgia and the two Carolinas, that allowed it threatened to leave the convention if the trade were banned. As a consequence, the Convention postponed the decision on the slave trade because of its contentious nature. The delegates to the Convention did not want its ratification to fail because of the conflict over slavery. Therefore, a special committee worked out another compromise: Congress would have the power to ban the slave trade, but not until at least 20 years had passed, in 1808.
Drafting and signing
In late July, the convention appointed a committee to draft a document based on the agreements that had been reached. After another month of discussion and refinement, a second committee, the Committee of Style and Arrangement, headed by Gouverneur Morris, and including Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, Rufus King, and Madison, produced the final version, which was submitted for signing on September 17. Morris is credited now, as then, as the chief draftsman of the final document, including the stirring preamble.
Not all the delegates were pleased with the results; some left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph, George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. George Mason demanded a Bill of Rights if he was to support the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was finally added and is considered the final compromise of the Convention; several states asked specifically for these amendments when ratifying the Constitution, and others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that a bill of rights would soon follow. Of the 39 who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied. Their views were ably summed up by Benjamin Franklin, who said,
"There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. … I doubt to whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. … 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…."
The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, who was in France during the convention, characterized the delegates as an assembly of "demi-gods." Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not attend; they were abroad in Europe, but they wrote home to encourage the delegates. Patrick Henry was also absent; he refused to go because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the convention.
(*) Did not sign the final draft of the U.S. Constitution.
- Founding Fathers of the United States
- History of the United States
- United States Constitution
All links Retrieved August 18, 2008.
- Gordon Lloyd,Introduction to the Constitutional Convention. access October 6, 2007
- Devin Bent, "Constitutional Convention Overview". access October 6, 2007.
- Constitutional Topic: The Constitutional Convention. US Constitution.net. access October 17, 2007.
- Transcription of the Virginia Plan Retrieved December 13, 2008.
- The Plan of Charles Pinckney (South Carolina), Presented to the Federal Convention, May 29, 1787. The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. access November 28, 2007.
- The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison: May 29. The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. access November 28, 2007.
- William Paterson, United States Army. Accessed October 23, 2007. "He was co-author of the New Jersey (or Paterson) Plan that asserted the rights of the small states by proposing a national legislature that, ignoring differences in size and population, gave equal voice to all the states. The proposal countered the Virginia Plan introduced by Edmund Randolph, which granted special recognition to differences in population and, therefore, favored the large states."
- The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison: July 16. The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.
- Roger Sherman and The Connecticut Compromise. Connecticut Judicial Branch Law Libraries. accessdate 2007-09-28.
- Hannis Taylor. The Origin and Growth of the English Constitution: An Historical Treatise. .books.google.com. Houghton, (Mifflin and company, 1890), 72.
- Francis Newton Thorpe. The Story of the Constitution of the United States. .books.google.com. (Chautauqua Press, 1891), 129-132.
- Constitutional Rights Foundation, The Constitution and Slavery. access November 21, 2007.
- Bill of Rights. National Archives. access November 21, 2007
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787. Foreword by Warren E. Burger. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.
- Madison, James. The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison: July 16 The Avalon Project Yale Law School. Retrieved August 20, 2008.
- Roger Sherman and The Connecticut Compromise Connecticut Judicial Branch Law Libraries. Retrieved August 20, 2008.
- Taylor, Hannis. The Origin and Growth of the English Constitution: An Historical Treatise. (original 1890) reprint ed. Fred B Rothman & Co. 1992. ISBN 9780837726366.
- The Constitution and Slavery (in English). Constitutional Rights Foundation. Retrieved August 20, 2008.
- Thorpe, Francis Newton. The Story of the Constitution of the United States. Chautauqua Press, 1891. 129-132. OCLC 893989 .books.google.com.
All links retrieved November 23, 2022.
- USConstitution.net - The Constitutional Convention
- Founders' Blog - Republishing Madison's notes on the convention 220 years later
- TeachingAmericanHistory.org - The Constitutional Convention
- Transcription from the Report from the Grand Compromise Committee
- National Constitution Center
|United States Constitution
|History • Articles of Confederation • Annapolis Convention • Philadelphia Convention • New Jersey Plan • Virginia Plan • Connecticut Compromise • Signatories • Massachusetts Compromise • Federalist Papers
|Bill of Rights • Ratified • Proposed • Unsuccessful • Conventions to propose • State ratifying conventions
|Appointments • Case or controversy • Citizenship • Commerce • Confrontation • Contract • Copyright • Due Process • Equal Protection • Establishment • Exceptions • Free Exercise • Full Faith and Credit • Impeachment • Natural–born citizen • Necessary and Proper • No Religious Test • Presentment • Privileges and Immunities (Art. IV) • Privileges or Immunities (14th Amend.) • Speech or Debate • Supremacy • Suspension • Takings Clause • Taxing and Spending • Territorial • War Powers
|Theory • Congressional enforcement • Double jeopardy • Dormant commerce clause • Enumerated powers • Executive privilege • Incorporation of the Bill of Rights • Nondelegation • Preemption • Separation of church and state • Separation of powers
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