By 1787, just four years after the conclusion of the War for Independence, the American states and their fledgling union were in trouble. The British still menaced from their lair in Canada; Spain was encroaching on the southwest and threatened to prohibit use of the Mississippi River for trade. American states were blocked from lucrative markets in the British-controlled West Indies. Individual states set up their own tariffs and treaties. The union under the Articles of Confederation was failing because the federal government had no power to enforce its laws. But the chief problem was money. The only hard currency was foreign, and it was scarce.
Both the national government and individual states had outstanding IOUs for expenses accrued during the war. Individual states issued paper money which soon became devalued. Many people were thrown into debtors prison because they didn’t have the hard currency to pay taxes and other expenses. Things came to a head when Massachusetts imposed a harsh tax to pay its debts. People were hard pressed to pay these taxes. Bands of farmers under the leadership of Daniel Shays closed courts, prohibited sheriffs from collecting taxes, and, when the Massachusetts militia came after them, attacked the arsenal at Springfield. Shays’ insurgents lost that battle, but later gained much through more lawful methods. The incident, however, had a profound effect on people and the nation. As a result, the Continental Congress called for a constitutional convention to convene in Philadelphia on May 14th.
Fifty-five delegates from 12 of the 13 states met during that sultry summer of 1787. (Rhode Island refused to participate.) Most delegates were veterans of the revolution, members of state legislatures or the Continental Congress. Most were wealthy businessmen, lawyers, judges or politicians, who had considerable experience in writing laws and constitutions within their own states. Most were well educated in the classics at colleges or through self-study, but there were some scoundrels as well.
Small states were fearful they would not have adequate representation in a new government. Large states were resentful that under the Articles of Confederation each state had just one vote, a situation which was unfair to the population of big states. Some wanted a very strong central government; while others fought passionately for states’ rights. Western interests were at odds with the eastern establishment; rural interests competed with the large population centers; and the North and South were divided over both business and slavery. Given these contrary views, it is remarkable that anything was accomplished in Philadelphia, and several times the convention almost failed. But the delegates had an overriding common concern, the absolute necessity “to form a more perfect union,” and James Madison of Virginia had a plan.
Madison was a “Nationalist”, a supporter of a strong central government, but not as strong as envisioned by Alexander Hamilton. Madison wound up mediating between Hamilton and the strong states rights position such as that held by Thomas Jefferson. Although many of Madison’s specific proposals for the new constitution were not adopted, he did provide the philosophical basis which eventually carried the convention. Madison believed that government should be instituted to protect property, property in the broad sense. He was concerned about government power. He wrote “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” The government must be powerful enough to govern effectively, but not so powerful as to interfere with the legitimate liberties of the people. Madison envisioned a “national principle” wherein the government would act upon people directly rather than through the states. He promoted a “separation of powers” that would provide checks and balances within the government so that no one branch could, theoretically, gain too much power.
We all know how this story turns out, but how it got to the conclusion it did is a fascinating story. We owe James Madison for this knowledge because he is the only one who kept complete notes. Throughout that long summer, the delegates debated each point, came to conclusions, revisited and revised those conclusions, made and broke alliances and deals.
One of these deals makes an interesting sidelight. The original charters of many states had their territories running all the way to the Mississippi River. Many states ceded their western territories to the national government. But of vital interest was how these lands would be carved up into new states and how these states would be admitted to the union, because new states could upset the balance of power. As it happened, the Continental Congress was meeting in New York at the same time as the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In New York, Congress was considering the Northwest Ordinance which would determine how states carved from the Northwest Territory would be admitted to the union.
In Philadelphia, delegates were debating how black slaves would be counted for the purposes of taxation of their owners, and how they would be counted for purposes of a state’s representation in the new Congress. Three southern delegates disappeared from Philadelphia for several days. When they returned, it was reported that southern states agreed that new states carved out of the Northwest Territory would be admitted as “free” states. In Philadelphia, the delegates made a concession favorable to southern states on the questions mentioned.
Finally it was done. On September 17th, the delegates read through the new Constitution one last time and 40 of the 55 delegates affixed their signatures. When ratified by nine states, it would become law of the land. Now all they had to do was sell it to the states.
And they forgot a bill of rights! Most delegates thought a bill of rights was unnecessary because state constitutions contained such safeguards. But it was this issue that almost sank the Constitution; citizens of the states considered a bill of rights of paramount importance.
To help sell the new constitution, two New York lawyers, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay (later the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and a Virginia scholar and politician, James Madison, wrote a series of essays which became known as the Federalist Papers. These essays endeavored to justify the decision at Philadelphia and provide a primer to those who would debate ratification in the several states.
Delaware became the first state to ratify the new Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787; New Hampshire became the ninth on June 21, 1788, followed soon by New York and Virginia. North Carolina and Rhode Island refused until a bill of rights was added during the first administration of George Washington.
Our Bill of Rights was modeled after the Virginia Declaration of Rights crafted by George Mason. James Madison led the new Congress in proposing 12 amendments, ten of which became our Bill of Rights, the other two were not adopted. At last, we had a contract with America.
Just after the convention in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was asked by an observer whether we now had a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
[Note: To read more about the fascinating details of the Constitutional Convention, the tenor of the times, the background of the players, the deals and concerns, I recommend the book: Decision in Philadelphia by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier. That book provided the details for this essay.]
Originally published June 2013
Copyrighted by Jonathan DuHamel. Reprint is permitted provided that credit of authorship is provided and linked back to the source.