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Building the State (1781-1797)

The Constitutional Convention

The Demise of the Articles of Confederation

The Constitution and a New Government


On May 25, 1787, 55 delegates, representing every state but Rhode Island, met at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, which is now known as Independence Hall. Notable delegates included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. At first, the convention was very secretive. No members of the press were allowed to observe, and no official journal of the proceedings were kept. In fact, chaperones were assigned to Ben Franklin at all times, the eldest of the delegates, who had a reputation for being talkative. The chaperones assumed the responsibility for making sure that Franklin did not publicize the details of the debates. 39 of the 55 delegates had served in the Continental Congress, and were well aware of the restrictions placed on the national government by the Articles of Confederation. They were convinced of the need for a stronger national government. The vast majority of delegates entered the proceedings similarly convinced by their experiences under the Articles.

The first question facing the delegates was whether to attempt to amend the Articles of Confederation or to throw out the Articles and create a new framework of government. The decision was made early on to create a new framework embodied in a new national constitution. At this point, the convention became known as the Constitutional Convention. Once the drafting of the Constitution had begun, it became clear that the major stumbling block to agreement on a governmental system would be achieving a balance between the needs of large and small states.

James Madison presented the first suggested framework of government which contained a solution to this conflict of interests in the Virginia Plan. The Virginia Plan called for a strong, unified national government rather than a loose confederation of states. The Plan gave Congress unbridled powers of legislation and taxation, and allowed Congress to veto state laws and use military force against the states. The Plan further called for a bicameral legislature with representation in both houses based on state population. The lower house would choose the members of the upper house from a pool selected by the state legislatures. These houses would jointly name the president and federal judges.

The Virginia Plan met with staunch opposition, especially in regard to the scheme for representation as proportional to population. William Patterson, a delegate from New Jersey, presented an alternative to the Virginia Plan, called the New Jersey Plan, to counter Madison's proposal. The New Jersey Plan called for a unicameral congress in which each state would have an equal number of seats. This was the only main difference between the plans, as both would strengthen the national government at the expense of state power.

The debate over representation resulted in a long impasse that held up the proceedings of the convention for weeks. Finally, the delegates from each state agreed to assign one member to a "grand committee," which would decide the issue once and for all. On July 17, 1787 the committee approved the Connecticut Compromise, which gave each state an equal vote in the upper house, and made representation in the lower house proportional to population. The remaining debates went far more smoothly, and the decisions regarding the executive and judicial branches were fairly unanimous. On September 17, 1787, the new Constitution was approved by the convention and sent to the states for ratification.


The members of the Constitutional Convention arrived uncertain of just how large the changes they made to the Articles of Confederation would be. However, they knew that their actions would have dramatic ramifications for the national government. The commitment to secrecy at the outset of the convention opened the convention up to accusations of undemocratic behavior and conspiracy, but the delegates agreed that a policy of non-disclosure would allow them to debate the issues of national government free from the restrictions arising from public criticism.

All of the delegates agreed on the need for a stronger central government. However, it was not until after substantial debate that they decided the Articles of Confederation so lacked the structure of effective government that the only way to rectify the errors of the Articles was to scrap them altogether in favor of a new framework. The clean slate of a new document gave the delegates the freedom to break from tradition and plan an entirely new form of government, but it also opened the door to debate over many aspects of the government, including representation, which were previously settled by the Articles of Confederation.

Legislative representation is the cornerstone of democratic republican government, and assumed a primary role in the Constitutional Convention. One reason for this was the focus of the founders on the powers of the Congress, where they envisioned the majority of the power of the national government would lie. Additionally, as states gave up power to the national governments, delegates wanted to ensure that the representatives of the state would have a weighty vote in the national Congress. This desire brought into focus the conflicting interests of small and large states. Large states naturally preferred that representation in Congress be proportional to state population, ensuring that large states would have the largest number of votes. Such is the rational behind the Virginia Plan, presented by Madison. Small states naturally resisted the Virginia Plan, since under its auspices they would be dominated by the large states.

The Virginia Plan would have granted the four largest states a majority in Congress, leaving the 9 smallest states as a minority. On the other hand, under the New Jersey Plan, the smallest seven states would constitute a majority in Congress while those states held only 25 percent of the nation's citizens. The question of representation proved to be the most significant obstacle to the drafting of the Constitution. In fact, passions ran so strongly in favor of each of the alternate Plans that the Connecticut Compromise, which seems, in retrospect, the logical solution to the debate, was not even entertained for weeks after the subject of representation came up.

Despite the roadblock presented by the issue of representation, the Constitution was drafted in an impressively short amount of time, less than three months. This suggests that the delegates from every state, though they came from different geographical, economic, and ideological backgrounds, had experienced the period of government under the Articles of Confederation similarly, and thus were able to agree upon the most appropriate way in which to rectify the errors of the Articles.

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