It was 225 years ago this week that the Constitutional Convention started in earnest in Philadelphia. Our historical correspondent, Benjamin Brown, looks at the week that was in May 1787.
Once upon a time, on a morning in late May, delegates from all the states arrived in Philadelphia to create a brand new government. Everything went according to plan and everyone agreed. The Constitution was written and they all lived happily ever after.
If only it were that simple.
The writing of the Constitution was by no means a given. In fact, the Federal Convention was supposed to overhaul the Articles of Confederation, then the law of the land. But there were numerous disagreements. The Convention got off to a pretty slow start and lasted through the summer.
First, the Convention had attendance issues worse than a class made up of second-semester seniors itching to graduate.
Only 29 delegates – barely half of those who would show up – made it to the opening meeting of the convention on May 25. In fact, no more than 11 states of the 13 states were represented at any one time. The two New Hampshire delegates even arrived two months tardy, in late July. And Rhode Island — afraid of being swallowed by big government — must have had a Ferris Bueller complex because it played hooky altogether.
A fundamental question of the Convention was whether the delegates were amending the Articles or creating a completely new government. To answer this, the delegates had to decide how the states would blend with a more powerful central government. George Washington and James Madison felt the states had too much power, while Congress had too little.
Skeptical of the durability of the Articles, Washington said, “[T]hirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole.”
Delegates saw fixing the Articles as a nearly impossible task. There was no national military, no national system of courts, states issued their own paper money, Congress could not tax, and the federal government could not force the states to obey its laws.
Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts famously demonstrated the inefficiencies of the Articles. Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays and his supporters conducted raids throughout Massachusetts when the state government refused to ease up on debtors.
Since there was no national army, Massachusetts had to put down the rebellion alone.
Washington stated the Articles needed to be changed when he asked Madison, “What stronger evidence can be given of the want of energy in our government than these disorders?”
Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan during the first week. The plan proposed a bicameral legislature with state representation determined by population, scaring the smaller states.
The plan also proposed the creation of an executive and judicial branch, but the resolutions failed to spell out the powers of the federal government and it did not recognize state sovereignty. In spite of its questions, it was the first step toward a new government.
For the first few days, the only agreement the delegates seemed to make was making Washington the presiding officer of the meeting. The broad-chested Virginian and war hero was chosen to be president of the Convention. He humbly accepted the nomination, but was nonetheless eager to lead.
Though there were plenty of disagreements in the summer of 1787, the story does have a happy ending. A Constitution was drafted after numerous ego-fueled debates and questions.
Some of us might take the Constitution for granted, but its drafting could be considered a legal miracle.
Benjamin Brown is a student of history and American studies at Lafayette College and the assistant sports editor of the school newspaper. He is also in the Public Programs department of the National Constitution Center.