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Building the State (1781-1797)

The Constitutional Convention

The Demise of the Articles of Confederation

The Constitutional Convention, page 2

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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.

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