"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
- Preamble to the United States Constitution, written in 1787
It created the oldest Constitution that is still being used today, but which was a radical departure from virtually everything that came before it. It created a new form of government, but it was only authorized to modify the one that already existed - not replace it. And it has been celebrated as the best form of government ever devised by man, but was not seen as anything close to ideal by any of the men who were there.
The Constitutional Convention
Why a Constitutional Convention was necessary
The event was the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1787 to improve upon the existing system of government. The government of that time was more like the United Nations than the modern United States; because all of the states remained sovereign, acting more like independent nations than portions of a whole. The federal government had no power to regulate trade, no executive branch to enforce laws, and no power to tax - with the latter flaw being the most crippling one. I'm not saying taxes can't be too high (or aren't too high now), but a government must have the power to tax to be able to perform its needful functions; and the government of that time simply was not able to. Thus, it was not able to pay the massive debts accumulated during the Revolution; and the massive war debts of the federal government were in risk of default. Thus, a stronger central government was required than the completely toothless one of that time; and a Constitutional Convention was sorely needed.
Interior of Independence Hall
Personalities and issues, compromises and deals
The only dramatization I've ever seen of the Constitutional Convention is "A More Perfect Union: America Becomes A Nation." Made in the bicentennial year of the Constitution; it dramatizes the sometimes fiery debates in Independence Hall, about what kind of government to make. It depicts personalities and issues, compromises and deals, and the meticulous attention to detail needed to create our present Constitution. From the elder Franklin to the celebrated Washington to the unknown Madison, all of the major personalities of the convention are depicted, and one gets a sense of what they were concerned about, and what issues they thought were most important.
Problems in getting the convention started
The convention would never have met at all, without the work of three men: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were both instrumental in setting up two constitutional conventions - a failed one at Annapolis, and the finally successful one at Philadelphia - and George Washington was the man whose presence gave the convention legitimacy. All of the states that sent delegates did so on the strict condition that George Washington come; and would not have sent delegates at all if he had stayed at home. He had wanted to stay at home anyway because of not wanting to end his retirement, but was persuaded to attend the convention by James Madison; and he thus got the convention started by so doing.
The "Virginia Plan": The first draft of the Constitution
No single man got everything he wanted, because the document was a bundle of compromises; but the man who had the greatest influence on the final document was undoubtedly James Madison: the man we rightly call the "Father of the Constitution." He wrote a document called the Virginia Plan; which was basically the rough draft of our Constitution, and had a tremendous influence on the final version. Madison convinced the delegates to completely abolish the Articles of Confederation (the existing system of government), and replace it with a new Constitution that had three branches of government. The government was much more powerful than the previous one, and was thus able to perform the necessary functions of federal government. The states gave up their most extreme independence to create a much more centralized government, and it is due primarily to James Madison that this miracle happened.
A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today
Struggle for power: The controversy over representation
But there was one thing about the Virginia Plan which caused more controversy than any other, and that was the plan to have proportional representation. Under the previous system of government, each state had one vote and one vote only, regardless of whether it was a big state or a small state. Thus, states like Rhode Island - with a tiny population - had just as many votes as Virginia - a state with a larger population. Understandably, the smaller states wanted to keep it this way, but the large states wanted representation proportioned to population, so that they would have more votes. They had enough votes to carry the day in this struggle; but the small states threatened to leave the convention if both houses of Congress had proportional representation, and the threats to walk out ultimately worked. Thus, there was a major compromise: proportional representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives), and equal representation in the upper house (the Senate). This was the biggest controversy of the Convention.
Roger Sherman, author of the compromise over representation
The controversy over slavery
The other great controversy of the Convention was the controversy over slavery. The issue was not entirely separate from representation, because representation in the lower house was based upon the population of free individuals plus "three-fifths of all other persons" (i.e. slaves); but there were some separate issues, which resulted in concessions like the fugitive slave clause - perhaps the most disturbing provision of the Constitution to Northerners of that time. The three-fifths clause is not covered here, because the representation issue is complicated enough without it (at least for general audiences); and the fugitive slave clause is likewise omitted; but the slave importation clause is covered in some detail, with this being the only major slavery clause they depict - possibly because there was a time limit written into this clause already at this time, which allowed them to thus make clear during their program that this clause was intended to be applied only for a particular period. (Twenty years, to be specific; with the clause expiring in 1808.) This docudrama thus has the virtue of not omitting the slavery issue because of this coverage, but they do cut much of it out due to lack of time. (I can live with that - this is still the best film out there about the Constitutional Convention.)
Alexander Hamilton, champion of a strong executive
Executive and judicial branches
Not covered are the debates over the executive branch and the judicial branch, which are probably the biggest omissions of importance to modern audiences. (The slavery issue is not as relevant today because of its being abolished, so they're more justified in trimming it; but the executive branch and judicial branch continue to have great relevance today.) But they do cover Benjamin Franklin's harmonizing role at the Convention, with his diplomacy behind the scenes to foster compromise, and his wonderful speech in favor of signing the document. I am glad that they included this, because it was of great importance to the document's adoption.
United States Constitution
Throwing the "unanimity rule" out the window
Also omitted is the convention's decision to have only nine states required to put the document into effect - something that violated Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation, which said that "nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made" to the Articles of Confederation, "unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State." (emphasis added) The unanimity required here was impossible, because Rhode Island had refused even to send delegates to the convention; and a strict adherence to this rule would have thus meant that no Constitution could have been put into effect - thus allowing the Union to fracture completely, under the pressure of debts and armed rebellions like that of Mr. Shays. Like the slavery issue, this issue does not have much relevance to modern audiences; but was of vital importance at the time. Madison later justified breaking the laws of the Articles by quoting - or rather, paraphrasing - from the Declaration of Independence, which said that the people could "abolish or alter their governments as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness" - something which would not have been possible under a strict adherence to the Articles. His justification of this second revolution - namely, the Constitution - can be found in Federalist No. 40, which includes the paraphrase that I have offered here.
John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence
Benjamin Franklin's speech in favor of the Constitution
Even with these omissions, "A More Perfect Union" remains the best depiction of the Constitutional Convention ever to come on screen, and it is highly recommended to anyone interested in these vital events. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does ... Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best." (Source: Speech to the Federal Convention)
Conclusion: Getting the Constitution written was a miracle
I share Benjamin Franklin's astonishment that the system approaches so near to perfection as it does. I am also astonished that the system has lasted as long as it has. It is the oldest constitution still being used today. Truly a miracle occurred at Philadelphia on September 17, 1787; and the miracle lives on. I express my wish that the miracle will continue to live on, and express my love of the United States Constitution on its special anniversary day.
Footnote to this blog post:
During the four months that the Convention met, its proceedings were actually kept secret, and delegates were not allowed to talk about it to the public. This allowed them to talk more freely about various sensitive issues that they needed to discuss, but it also drew the criticism of some, including a few who were otherwise supportive of the Convention's purpose.
Among those in this category was Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving overseas as the American ambassador to France. Writing from his residence in Paris, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams, who was then serving as the American ambassador to Britain, and was thus living across the Channel from Jefferson in London. In this letter, Jefferson said that he had "news from America as late as July 19. Nothing had then transpired from the Federal convention. I am sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members. Nothing can justify this example but the innocence of their intentions, and ignorance of the value of public discussions. I have no doubt that all their other measures will be good and wise. It is really an assembly of demigods." (Source: Letter of 30 August 1787)
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The U. S. Constitution
The ratification debates
The U. S. Bill of Rights
Part of a series about
The Constitution itself, and the story behind it
Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
States' rights: The conflict between the "several states" and the federal government
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are so important
Elected officials: A few ways that the Constitution keeps our politicians under control
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
Threats of impeachment: The power of Congress to keep presidents in line
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks
Debates over the Constitution, then and since
Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Who is "Publius"?: The secret pen name of the men who wrote the Federalist Papers
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The First Amendment: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and peaceable assemblies
Congressional pay: The amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights
Abolishing slavery: The things that led up to the famous antislavery amendment
The Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education
Next page: Preamble →