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Constitutional Convention

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Description: Meeting of delegates from the thirteen original states held in Philadelphia for the purpose of framing the Constitution of the United States and submitting it to the Continental Congress, which subsequently offered it to the states for ratification.


Significance: The convention delegates wrote the original seven articles of the Constitution, renewing the foundation of U.S. national government. They laid the basis for three separate branches of government judicial, legislative, and executive at the national level, each with ability to check the power of the others, while retaining significant power of self-government at the state level.


By 1787 the weaknesses of the new U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation had become sadly evident. Disunity and social unrest prompted nationalist politicians such as James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York to call for a national convention to revise the old governmental system and form a stronger union among the states. On February 15, 1787, the Continental Congress agreed and asked the states to select delegates to such a convention scheduled for May 14 that same year in Philadelphia. The states gradually responded, but it was not until May 25 that a quorum of state delegations had arrived and the Constitutional Convention, the Grand Convention of 1787, got underway.


The Convention

During the next four months, fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to send anyone) attended the convention. Prominent among these delegates were, in addition to Madison and Hamilton, George Washington, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason of Virginia; Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania; Rufus King, Nathaniel Gorham, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts; John Rutledge of South Carolina; William Paterson of New Jersey; and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Although they were generally drawn from the educated and propertied elite of the day, they represented different regions and therefore had different interests. To attenuate conflict, the delegates agreed to hold deliberations in the strictest secrecy, thus screening out external influences. They also adopted the procedure of parceling out tough issues to committees composed of delegates representing all sides in the hope that compromise could be reached. This worked admirably with regard to the most divisive issue the convention faced, that concerning the basis for representation in the new Congress. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had one vote in a unicameral Congress, but at the convention, the most populous states sought what was to them a fairer plan: representation in a bicameral legislature based on population size. By mid-June, the smaller states had countered with an alternative plan based on the old system. For a month, this dispute threatened to wreck the convention. In committee, however, the delegates embraced what came to be known as the Great Compromise, proposed by Roger Sherman, under which the new Congress would be bicameral with the seats in one house, the House of Representatives, allocated to the states according to population and the seats in the other, the Senate, allocated equally, two seats for each state. The convention adopted the compromise by the narrowest of possible margins, but the system created survived. Not all issues were resolved successfully, however. Slavery, for example, was upheld through compromises that were ultimately undone by the Civil War and the Civil War Amendments. The convention also rejected the idea of adding a bill of rights over the strenuous objections of three delegates who later refused to sign the finished document in protest. The series of amendments that have come to be known as the Bill of Rights had to be added later in response to political pressure. The delegates, however, were of one mind on the need for a national supreme court and an independent national judiciary. No judicial branch existed under the Articles of Confederation, and this was deemed a serious defect. The principal matter of contention concerned who should appoint the court's judges, Congress or the chief executive. Here again the spirit of compromise prevailed. The convention adopted a proposal by Nathaniel Gorham, which was actually the system used in Massachusetts for many years, whereby the judges would be appointed by the executive with the advice and consent of the Senate. The convention defined the court's jurisdiction but created only a court and a chief justice in Article III of the Constitution, leaving the composition of the court and the organization of the lower judiciary to Congress.


The Debates and the Court

The Constitutional Convention itself rarely comes into play in cases where the Supreme Court must interpret constitutional clauses. The most reliable account of the debates, James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, did not even appear publicly until 1840. Furthermore, the Court preferred to interpret the Constitution by defining its terms in the context of a case before it, as it did with the commerce clause in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). The Court, however, made good use of the debates in several important cases. In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), for example, the Court carefully explored the convention debates on the representation controversy to establish the basis for the principle of one person, one vote in congressional district apportionment. The Court also alluded to convention debates regarding qualifications for office in determining that states may not limit the terms of congressional offices in United States Term Limits v. Thornton (1995). Both of these decisions were accompanied by strongly written dissenting opinions, illustrating that the debates of the convention have never entirely died out. After an exhausting and sometimes angry summer of debate, the convention closed on September 17, 1787, with the signing of the Constitution by thirty-four of the thirty-seven delegates present. Mason, Randolph, and Gerry were the three delegates who refused to sign, still holding out for a bill of rights.



Further Reading

  • Barash, Fred. The Founding: A Dramatic Account of the Writing of the Constitution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
  • Bernstein, Richard B., and K. S. Rice. Are We to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Kammen, Michael, ed. The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.
  • Rossiter, Clinton. 1787: The Grand Convention. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.