The Constitution of the United States is considered a living document, changing and growing since its ratification in 1787. Yet, the fundamental principles that it is based on have remained solid.
This lesson will describe the Constitutional Convention, the meeting in which the U.S. plan for government was debated and created.
The Constitutional Convention
Did you know that the Constitution was not the first plan of government for the United States? After the thirteen American colonies won independence from Britain, the men of the Continental Congress created a plan for government known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave a lot of power to individual states and extremely limited power to the federal government. For example, the federal government couldn’t enforce laws, levy taxes or even regulate taxes amongst the states. This didn’t help the already damaged economy.
In Massachusetts, inflated taxes led to huge debt for farmers, who rebelled in January of 1787. This event, known as Shay’s Rebellion, finally prompted many state delegates to question the effectiveness of the Articles of Confederation and the limits it placed on federal power.In the summer following Shay’s Rebellion, a meeting was called to address the flaws of the government. This meeting became known as the Constitutional Convention. On a sweltering May afternoon in 1787, fifty- five representatives from twelve of the thirteen states met in the State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A little over a decade earlier, many of them had met there to sign the Declaration of Independence. Later, this location was renamed Independence Hall.
All delegates were male, white, educated, and relatively well off. Around half of the men were lawyers. Other professions included merchants, doctors, and Southern plantation owners. The majority of them had been in the Continental Congress and had helped develop their own state governments. These men, which included George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, would later be known as the Founding Fathers.
Washington was considered a hero after his dazzling performance as Commander during the Revolutionary War. He was chosen as president of the convention. Considered the ‘Father of the Constitution,’ Madison took copious notes throughout the entire Convention. His notes provide detailed insight of the events that took place behind the Convention’s closed doors. Madison was extremely well informed on many forms of government and offered many valuable points during debates.
Benjamin Franklin was a brilliant politician and inventor. He was highly influenced by the Enlightenment, a movement focusing on attaining knowledge through reason and science. He brought his ideas and those of other Enlightenment thinkers to the Convention.
Constitutional Convention Goal
Many of the Founding Fathers were afraid of giving the government too much power, placing themselves under the rule of another monarchy.
They wanted to create a government that would protect the rights of the people. They aimed for a strong but limited government. As James Madison wrote, ‘you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.’
During the Convention, it was decided to form three branches of government, each with specific powers. The legislative branch would make laws, the executive branch would enforce laws, and the judicial branch would interpret laws. Much debate took place over how states would be represented in the legislature, also known as Congress. The Virginia Plan suggested that Congress have two houses and state population or wealth would be used to determine the number of representatives.
The New Jersey Plan suggested having only one house of Congress with one representative per state. After much debate, delegates approved the Great Compromise. Congress was divided into two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Two people from each state would sit in the Senate and the number of people in the House of Representatives would be based on state population.
The next debate centered over who should be counted for state representation. Southerners, who had significantly more slaves than the North, wanted slaves to be counted. With a higher state population, they would have more delegates in the House of Representatives. Of course, Northerners disagreed. Their final decision was called the Three-Fifths Compromise: Three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for both tax purposes and representation in Congress.Other heated debates took place between the North and South regarding slavery. Many northern states had already outlawed it, but southern states refused to do so.
It was decided that Congress could not ban the slave trade until 1808.Only Congress could make treaties with Native Americans, whom were still not considered citizens. Congress was given the power to regulate commerce and the sole power to coin money. However, Congress would not be able to tax exports, which made the South happy, since their economy heavily relied on exporting cotton to Europe.
On September 15, 1787, delegates approved the Constitution of the United States of America. The next step was to get three-quarters of the thirteen states to ratify, or approve, the Constitution. Supporters, known as Federalists, wrote arguments in favor of the Constitution. By the end of June 1787, nine of the thirteen states had ratified the Constitution, making it the official new plan for government.Still, many felt the Constitution was lacking a section outlining the liberties of Americans.
So, James Madison wrote a Bill of Rights, describing ten amendments designed to protect the individual rights of citizens from abuses by the government. By the time the Bill of Rights was added, four more states had ratified the Constitution, earning full support from all thirteen states.
In 1787, the men at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia achieved their goal. They created a new government for the United States that was strong but limited. It’s true that Native Americans, African Americans, and women didn’t participate in the process and weren’t exactly provided for in the new plan. Thankfully, though, the Founding Fathers, who included Washington, Madison, and Franklin, created an amendable Constitution.
Over time it has come closer and closer to really representing ‘We the People of the United States’.