This series has eight easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The Convention Convenes.
Before the American Revolution, no large-scale democracy had ever been successful. In ancient Athens and Rome, it worked when the nations were small but turned into some kind of authoritarian rule when they grew large. Contemporary Republics such as The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Venice seemed to confirm that democracy meant small.
The United States of America was never small. Thirteen original colonies commanded territory from Georgia to New Hampshire. In addition, the nation held territory all the way to the Canadian border in the north and to the Mississippi River in the west. No nation in western Europe held this much territory sans oversees colonies. And republics such as The Netherlands did not let their colonies participate in their central government.
The importance of the U.S. Constitution is that it completed the American Revolution. It gave it a practical structure. It gave the world an example of how democracy could work on a large scale.
The selections are from:
- The American Statesman by Andrew W. Young published in 1860.
- Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States by Joseph Story published in 1833.
For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. There’s 6.5 installments by Andrew W. Young and 1.5 installments by Joseph Story.
We begin with Andrew W. Young.
The day appointed for the assembling of the Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation was May 14, 1787. Delegations from a majority of the States did not attend until the 25th, on which day the business of the convention commenced. The delegates from New Hampshire did not arrive until July 23d. Rhode Island did not appoint delegates.
A political body combining greater talents, wisdom, and patriotism, or whose labors have produced results more beneficial to the cause of civil and religious liberty, has probably never assembled. The two most distinguished members were Washington and Franklin, to whom the eyes of the convention were directed for a presiding officer. Washington, having been nominated by Lewis Morris, of Pennsylvania, was elected president of the convention. William Jackson was appointed secretary. The rules of proceeding adopted by the convention were chiefly the same as those of Congress. A quorum was to consist of the deputies of at least seven States, and all questions were to be decided by the greater number of those which were fully represented — at least two delegates being necessary to constitute a full representation. Another rule was the injunction of secrecy upon all their proceedings.
The first important question determined by the convention was, whether the confederation should be amended or a new government formed? The delegates of some States had been instructed only to amend. And the resolution of Congress sanctioning a call for a convention recommended it “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” A majority, however, considering the plan of confederation radically defective, resolved to form “a national government, consisting of a supreme judicial, legislative, and executive.” The objection to the new system on the ground of previous instructions was deemed of little weight, as any plan that might be agreed on would necessarily be submitted to the people of the States for ratification.
In conformity with this decision Edmund Randolph, of Virginia, on May 29th, offered fifteen resolutions, containing the outlines of a plan of government for the consideration of the convention. These resolutions proposed: That the voice of each State in the National Legislature should be in proportion to its taxes or to its free population; that the Legislature should consist of two branches, the members of the first to be elected by the people of the States, those of the second to be chosen by the members of the first, out of a proper number of persons nominated by the State legislatures; and the National Legislature to be vested with all the powers of “Congress under the Confederation,” with the additional power to legislate in all cases to which the separate States were incompetent; to negative all State laws which should, in the opinion of the National Legislature, be repugnant to the Articles of Union or to any treaty subsisting under them; to call out the force of the Union against any State refusing to fulfil its duty:
That there should be a national executive, to be chosen by the National Legislature, and to be ineligible a second time. The executive, with a convenient number of the national judiciary, was to constitute a council of revision, with a qualified negative upon all laws, State and national:
A national judiciary, the judges to hold their offices during good behavior.
In discussing this plan, called the “Virginia plan,” the lines of party were distinctly drawn. We have already had occasion to allude to the jealousy, on the part of States, of the power of the General Government. A majority of the peculiar friends of State rights in the convention were from the small States. These States, apprehending danger from the overwhelming power of a strong national government, as well as from the combined power of the large States, represented in proportion to their wealth and population, were unwilling to be deprived of their equal vote in Congress. Not less strenuously did the friends of the national plan insist on a proportional representation. This opposition of sentiment, which divided the convention into parties, did not terminate with the proceedings of that body, but has at times marked the politics of the nation down to the present day. It is worthy of remark, however, that the most jealous regard for State rights now prevails in States in which the plan of a national government then found its ablest and most zealous advocates.
The plan suggested by Randolph’s resolutions was the subject of deliberation for about two weeks, when, having been in several respects modified in committee, and reduced to form, it was reported to the House. It contained the following provisions:
A national legislature to consist of two branches, the first to be elected by the people for three years; the second to be chosen by the State legislatures for seven years, the members of both branches to be apportioned on the basis finally adopted; the Legislature to possess powers nearly the same as those originally proposed by Edmund Randolph. The executive was to consist of a single person to be chosen by the National Legislature for seven years, and limited to a single term, and to have a qualified veto; all bills not approved by him to be passed by a vote of three-fourths of both Houses in order to become laws. A national judiciary to consist of a supreme court, the judges to be appointed by the second branch of the Legislature for the term of good behavior, and of such inferior courts as Congress might think proper to establish.
This plan being highly objectionable to the State rights party, a scheme agreeable to their views was submitted by William Paterson, of New Jersey. This scheme, called the “New Jersey plan,” proposed no alteration in the constitution of the Legislature, but simply to give it the additional power to raise a revenue by duties on foreign goods imported, and by stamp and postage taxes; to regulate trade with foreign nations and among the States; and, when requisitions made upon the States were not complied with, to collect them by its own authority. The plan proposed a federal executive, to consist of a number of persons selected by Congress; and a federal judiciary, the judges to be appointed by the executive, and to hold their offices during good behavior.
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