April 28, 2009 – The year was 1787, the city, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The event was a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, although for the most part, the delegates attending this monumental meeting of minds realized that a mere revision of the existing Articles would not suffice. The consensus among many was that a completely new document be written to correct the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation.
Possibly as an omen of the rough times ahead, Rhode Island refused to send any delegates to participate in the convention, as they were content with the existing system of government, as weak and inefficient as it may have been.
Patrick Henry, another patriot who stirred his fellow countrymen to arms with his speech proclaiming, …Give me liberty, or give me death. also did not attend, as he smelled a rat in Philadelphia. Henrys concern was that this convention had plans to establish another monarchy, such as the one they had recently fought for their independence.
Nevertheless, as proclaimed, on May 14, 1787, the Convention convened to begin discussing how to best resolve the problems plaguing the inadequate federal government.
It could have been the difficulty of travel, or it could have been something entirely different, but whatever the reason, only four delegates from Virginia, and four from Pennsylvania were present on the first day of the convention. It wasnt until May 25th that a quorum of seven states was obtained, and they were able to get started.
It is important to note that the delegates to the convention were sent there only to ratify, or amend the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation, any action taken by Congress required a unanimous vote to be approved.
Therefore, technically speaking, the moment the delegates to the convention began discussing a new document, outlining a new system of government, they were in fact outside the authority granted them. Perhaps this was why one of the first orders of business was to hold the delegates to complete secrecy regarding the proceedings.
One historian called it a Convention of the well-bred, the well-fed, the well-read, and the well-wed. Nevertheless, it could be said that upon the shoulders of these men rested the future of the nation.
Although the delegates to the convention were from, what some might say, the upper levels of society, the aristocrats, they were still probably among the best political minds in the nation at the time.
From the very beginning, when the Virginia Plan was first introduced, it was clear that not only did the individual delegates have differing ideas as to the size and scope of the government, but the individual states meant to ensure that their best interests were met as well.
One has to remember, that at the time there was only a Congress, and a weak one at that. There was no executive, no judiciary, and these were all things that had to be discussed, and worked out to the agreement of the majority.
Some states wanted equal representation in Congress, regardless of population, while others wanted representation based solely on population. Alexander Hamilton went so far as to propose a plan very similar to the British system of government, with a Governor, elected for life, who held absolute veto power, including the power to veto bills proposed at the state level. Hamiltons plan would have basically erased all state sovereignty, making the proposed Governor a monarch.
At times the discussions were heated, so much so that one delegate was quoted as saying the convention …was on the verge of dissolution, scarce held together by the strength of an hair.
George Washington, who had been named President of the Convention was so frustrated that he regretted having any agency in the proceedings. He went so far as to call the opponents of a strong central government, narrow minded politicians.
With all the animosity and contention it is a miracle that anything was accomplished at all. Yet come to a general consensus they did, even though only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the final document.
It was an exhausting four months of debate and concession that led to the document we now know as our Constitution. The overall feeling was best summed up by Ben 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 too 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…”
Even with Franklins conciliatory speech some delegates left before the signing ceremony, while others, such as Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry, refused to sign it. George Mason felt that the document did little to protect individual rights, and demanded a Bill of Rights be added before he would affix his signature to it.
Later, James Madison would write about the proceedings, saying, The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.
Yet as difficult as the four months of the convention were, it was just the first step. If they thought the convention was tough, they now had to sell this new document to the people of the United States. The battle for ratification will be discussed in Chapter 4.
Live your life in such a way that when your feet hit the floor in the morning,
Satan shudders and says “OH SHIT!!…. HE’S AWAKE!!”
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