Constitutional Convention (United States)

The Constitutional Convention[1]:31 (also known as the Philadelphia Convention,[1]:31 the Federal Convention,[1]:31 or the Grand Convention at Philadelphia[2][3]) took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in the old Pennsylvania State House (later known as Independence Hall because of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence there eleven years before) in Philadelphia. Although the Convention was intended to revise the league of states and first system of government under the Articles of Confederation, the intention from the outset of many of its proponents, chief among them James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York, was to create a new government rather than fix the existing one. The delegates elected George Washington of Virginia, former commanding general of the Continental Army in the late American Revolutionary War (1770–1783) and proponent of a stronger national government, to preside over the Convention. The result of the Convention was the creation of the Constitution of the United States, placing the Convention among the most significant events in American history.

At the time, the convention was not referred to as a "Constitutional" convention, nor did most of the delegates arrive intending to draft a new constitution. Many assumed that the purpose of the convention was to discuss and draft improvements to the existing Articles of Confederation, and would have not agreed to participate otherwise. Once the Convention began, however, most of the delegates – though not all – came to agree in general terms that the goal would be a new system of government, not simply a revised version of the Articles of Confederation.

Several broad outlines were proposed and debated, most notably James Madison's Virginia Plan and William Paterson's New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan was selected as the basis for the new government. While the concept of a federal government with three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) and the general role of each branch was not heavily disputed, several issues delayed further progress and put the success of the Convention in doubt. The most contentious disputes revolved around the composition and election of the Senate as the upper legislative house of a bicameral Congress; whether "proportional representation" was to be defined by a state's geography or by its population, and whether slaves were to be counted; whether to divide the executive power among three people or vest the power in a single chief executive to be called the President; how a president would be elected, for what term, and whether to limit each president to a single term in office; what offenses should be impeachable; the nature of a fugitive slave clause, and whether to allow the abolition of the slave trade; and whether judges should be chosen by the legislature or the executive. Most of the time during the Convention was spent on deciding these issues.

Progress was slow until mid-July, when the Connecticut Compromise resolved enough lingering arguments for a draft written by the Committee of Detail to gain acceptance. Though more modifications and compromises were made over the following weeks, most of the rough draft remained in place and can be found in the finished version of the Constitution. After several more issues were resolved, the Committee on Style produced the final version in early September. It was voted on by the delegates, inscribed on parchment with engraving for printing, and signed by thirty-nine of fifty-five delegates on September 17, 1787. The completed proposed Constitution was then released to the public to begin the debate and ratification process.

Historical context

Before the Constitution was drafted, the nearly 4 million inhabitants[4] of the 13 newly independent states were governed under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, created by the Second Continental Congress, first proposed in 1776, adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1778 and only finally unanimously ratified by the Original Thirteen States by 1781. It soon became evident to nearly all that the chronically underfunded Confederation government, as originally organized, was inadequate for managing the various conflicts that arose among the states.[5]:4–5[6]:14–16 As the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states, any state had effective veto power over any proposed change.[7] In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power: it was wholly dependent on the states for its money, and had no power to force delinquent states to pay.[7]

Once the immediate task of winning the American Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783 had passed, the states began to look to their own interests, and disputes arose. These included a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over the Potomac River and opposition to Rhode Island's imposing taxes on all traffic passing through it on the post road. James Madison suggested that state governments should appoint commissioners "to take into consideration the trade of the United States; to examine the relative situation and trade of said states; to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interests and permanent harmony".[8]:92

Another impetus for the convention was Shays' Rebellion of 1786-1787. A political conflict between Boston merchants and rural farmers over issues including tax debts had broken out into an open rebellion. This rebellion was led by a former Revolutionary War captain, Daniel Shays, a small farmer with tax debts, who had never received payment for his service in the Continental Army. The rebellion took months for Massachusetts to put down completely, and some desired a federal army that would be able to put down such insurrections.[9]

These and other issues greatly worried many of the Founders that the Union as it existed up to that point was in danger of breaking apart,[10][11] and being subject to the persuasion of foreign powers.

In September 1786, at the Annapolis Convention, delegates from five states called for a Constitutional Convention in order to discuss possible improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The subsequent Constitutional Convention was to begin in Philadelphia, convening in the Old Pennsylvania State House (then becoming known as Independence Hall) on May 25, 1787. Rhode Island, fearing that the Convention would work to its disadvantage, boycotted the Convention and, when the Constitution was put to the states during the next year of controversial debates, initially refused to ratify it, waiting until May 1790 to become the thirteenth state, a year after the new federal government commenced.[12]

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