Virginia, the state which was instrumental in the calling of the convention, acted quickly to select the members of its delegation to that convention. Consequently, the Virginia delegation had considerable time in which to caucus while waiting for a quorum to assemble in Philadelphia.
Leading the delegation was George Washington, a popular man at 55 years of age. Patrick Henry was appointed, but refused the appointment. In his stead, Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia, himself a member of the delegation, appointed a physician, James McClurg. James Madison, also a very popular man in Virginia, was the politician/scholar of the delegation. Much of Madison’s writings on the idea of the new federal government may be found in a collection of essays written by Madison, Hamilton and Jay, entitled THE FEDERALIST, of which Madison wrote 51. Other members of the Virginia delegation included; George Wythe, Chancellor of the State, signer of the Declaration of Independence, professor of law at William and Mary; John Blair, a judge; and George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights.
Meeting on a daily basis before the opening of the convention, these men drew up a set of resolutions which they presented to the convention. This plan was the basis for debate on the business of the convention, and was ultimately modified and transformed into what became the final document, the U. S. Constitution. These fifteen resolutions and subsequent debate over them may be found in THE ANNALS OF AMERICA, VOLUME 3, William Benton, Publisher.
A constitutional convention is a sort of “superlegislature;” in that, the outcome it generates cannot be subject to the whim and fancy of the “normal” legislative body. The regular legislative body may enact one law today and reverse itself a year later by enacting such legislation. A constitutional convention writes a new constitution, making provision for its amendment by member states. This process of modifying the document is much more complex than simply enacting a new law. The lesson outline includes some ideas to pursue the status of a constitutional convention.
The members of this convention were, generally, in agreement on the following points: the Articles of Confederation were not adequate to meet the needs of the nation, the states would not accept any final product of this convention if it went too far in giving power to the central government, they wanted to set up a government which was a republic, leaving the ultimate power in the hands of the people, and it was necessary to find some basis for compromise, without which the convention would be hopelessly deadlocked.
Agreement had already been reached that the legislature would be bicameral, modeled after England’s Parliament. There was disagreement concerning the basis of representation in both houses of the legislature. This discord threatened to break up the convention. The small states advocated equal representation, while the large states thought it to be preposterous that a state of 50,000 inhabitants could exercise the same equal voice as a state of one million. The small states doggedly opposed anything less than equal representation.
The ensuing events proved to be a masterful blend of patience, perseverance, frank discussion and dedication to the task. The will of these men to create “a more perfect Union” prevailed in what was to be called the “Great Compromise.” It provided for representation in the first house to be according to population, an equal vote of the states in the second house, a census to be conducted every ten years for the purpose of redistribution of seats and the first house to have the exclusive power to initiate money bills. On July 16, after much debate, the Great Compromise was narrowly adopted. The struggles to maintain the powers of the large states over the small states were resolved. Each side was able to save face through this compromise.
Another division between the representatives developed which would eventually require the same procedure for discussion, perseverance and compromise. This division arose between the northern and southern states over the question of slavery. The southern states wanted to count their slaves in the population count for the purposes of representation in Congress, but not for the purpose of taxation. The northern states favored the opposing view, that slaves should be counted for taxation purposes, but not for the purpose of representation in Congress. Further, some southern states demanded that the new Constitution should absolutely forbid any interference with slavery by the national government. This discord was settled by developing the “three-fifths ratio,” which counted every five slaves as three people for the purposes of both taxation and representation.
With these compromises intact the remainder of the convention was a flurry of activity to hammer out the powers and operations of the new federal government. In some cases new powers were added to the central government, and in other cases the powers of the central government under the old Articles of Confederation were restated. The most important of the new powers that were granted to the new federal government were: the power to raise taxes, regulate trade between the states and foreign countries, the sole power to coin money.
On September 17, 1787, the final document was signed and ordered delivered to the states for debate in special conventions. The struggle for ratification of this document, radical as it was among such documents elsewhere in the world, had begun.
One of the main objections to the Constitution was the absence of a section which specifically enumerated the liberties of individuals. This objection was not to be ignored, if this document was to be ratified. In fact, the clamor was so great that assurances had to be given to states that objected on these grounds before they would be persuaded to ratify the Constitution.