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The Founding and the Constitution

The Constitutional Convention

The First Government of the United States

The Constitution

Delegates from eleven of the thirteen colonies gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787 to revise the Articles. Instead, however, delegates at the Constitutional Convention (sometimes called the Philadelphia Convention) quickly decided to scrap the Articles and write a document that created an entirely new, stronger national government.

The Framers of the Constitution

The group that met during the Constitutional Convention included some of the most prominent men of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary era. George Washington attended the convention (and was elected its president), along with Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Roger Sherman, among others. The framers of the Constitution were wealthier and better educated than the average American. Nearly all of them had experience in state and national governments, and many of them had fought in the revolution.

The Aims of the Framers

The framers met in Philadelphia to create a stronger national government that would better protect and enhance liberty by preventing tyranny. Shays’ Rebellion and the states’ inability to cooperate with one another had also demonstrated the weaknesses inherent in the Articles of Confederation, and many worried that Britain would take advantage of American weaknesses. At the same time, however, the framers did not want to abolish the state governments. At this time, most Americans felt more loyalty toward their state governments than to Congress, and strong local government made sense for the operation of a large nation such as the United States.

Issues and Compromises

The delegates to the convention disagreed with one another on three main issues: representation in Congress, slavery, and presidential elections. Failure to reach agreement on any of these issues would likely have led to dissolution of the already tenuous union of the states. Slave states, for example, were not willing to accept a constitution that banned slavery, whereas small states would not accept a document that gave excessive power to large states. Three compromises, summarized in the following table, resolved these disagreements.

 
SIGNIFICANT ISSUES AND COMPROMISES

Issue

Compromise

Representation in the national legislature Great Compromise
Slavery Three-Fifths Compromise
Presidential elections Electoral College
Representation and the Great Compromise

Delegates debated extensively about how the people and the states would be represented in the national legislature. Most delegates favored one of two representation schemes:

  • The Virginia Plan: Favored representation based on population. Delegates from the large states supported this plan because it would give them a great deal of power. Representatives from small states, however, rejected the plan because they would have fewer seats than the larger states and consequently less power.
  • The New Jersey Plan: Proposed giving each state equal representation in the legislature. Delegates from smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan because they believed that all states should have equal power, regardless of population.

For a time, the delegates’ debate over representation threatened to wreck the convention entirely. To save the convention, delegates compromised. The Great Compromise created a bicameral (composed of two houses) Congress. The upper house, called the Senate, would consist of two delegates from each state, regardless of size or population. Representation in the lower house, called the House of Representatives, would be apportioned according to the population of each state: The larger the state, the more representatives in the House. Both sides got some of what they wanted, and the Congress was created.

Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise

Delegates also debated about how slavery should affect representation in the House of Representatives. Roughly 90 percent of slaves in 1787 lived in the South and accounted for about 30 percent of the southern population. Southern delegates wanted slaves to be counted as people only when determining representation in Congress because a larger population meant more representatives and therefore more political power. Northern delegates opposed this view, however, and did not want slaves to be counted as people when determining a state’s population. According to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which resolved the dispute, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person when apportioning seats in the House of Representatives.

Presidential Elections

Finally, delegates debated about how the president would be elected. Some representatives, for example, favored direct election of the president, whereas others wanted to ensure that only the “best men” could hold the office. They compromised by creating the Electoral College, a presidential voting system whereby a special body of electors in each state casts a fixed number of votes for the president according to the combined number of seats the state has in the House and the Senate. For example, if a state had ten seats in the House and two seats in the Senate, it would cast twelve electoral votes in the Electoral College. Electors can chose whether to vote according to the wishes of the people in their state. The framers intended the Electoral College to serve as a safeguard should the people ever elect a president unwisely. According to the Constitution, the House of Representatives chooses the president if no single candidate receives a majority of electoral votes.

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