This Week in History – September 17

September 17, 1787 – At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, delegates from twelve states voted unanimously to approve the proposed U.S. Constitution. Missing was Rhode Island, which boycotted the Convention due to distrust over any attempt to create a more powerful national government.

In 1776, when the Continental Congress passed the Lee Resolution declaring the colonies independence from England, it effectively created 13 independent states, rather than one new independent nation. Americans were fighting for their independence from the English national government, and the colonies were united in doing only that; they were not trying to replace the English government with a new national government.

These new 13 “free and independent States” were just that: individual sovereign states, with the power to tax, raise an army, enter into treaties, and make war and peace. At the time, few colonists thought of themselves as “Americans;” instead, they felt loyalty to their own individual states. Even so, all Americans realized that cooperation among them was needed to fight the war for independence. They therefore decided to form a “Confederation,” or alliance, to successfully carry on the war.

In 1777, the Continental Congress therefore adopted the Articles of Confederation, a document which created a “league of friendship” among the states, and outlined the powers of this new Confederation (although the Articles were not officially ratified by all 13 states until 1781, the Congress still generally operated under its auspices).

Since the Articles were only intended to create a loose confederation of states, and not a unified national government, the Articles gave the Continental Congress very little power. It could make treaties, run a postal service, and print and borrow money, but it could not impose taxes to raise money or control the national economy. Each individual state kept the power to manage its own economy and tax its own citizens. Moreover, for decision that the Continental Congress could make, each of the 13 states had equal say in those decisions, regardless of size; tiny Delaware had as much power as huge Virginia.

Although the loose confederation sounded good in theory, in practice it was problematic. At war’s end, the colonies faced a number of problems that the Continental Congress was powerless to solve because it lacked the authority to do so. Most pressing was the national economy. During the war the Congress had borrowed millions of dollars from Americans to pay for supplies, but since it had no power to tax anyone to get money to pay back what it owed it was deeply in debt, with little hope of repaying it.

The Congress had also printed up millions of dollars of paper money, but since it had no gold or silver to back up those paper dollars, by war’s end those Continental Dollars had become worthless (“worth less than a Continental” was a common phrase at the time), resulting in debilitating inflation. As a result, those who had valuable gold or silver hoarded it, so less and less circulated in the economy, while at the same time merchants and creditors demanded to be repaid in gold or silver, refusing to take the worthless paper currency. Even the states got in the act, requiring that taxes be paid only with gold or silver.

This cycle of worthless paper money, inflation and hoarding meant that farmers and merchants who had supplied the Continental Army and had been paid with now worthless Continental dollars were financially ruined. Small farmers who had borrowed paper money to buy their land and were unable to repay these loans with gold lost their farms. Even those farmers who were not in debt lost their land because they were unable to pay their taxes with gold.

As if the economy were not bad enough, European countries imposed duties on American goods, making it difficult for Americans to sell products there, while at the same time accepting only gold or silver for payment for European goods. Without a real national government, America was not taken as a serious trading partner, even by its wartime allies France and Spain.

As a result of all of these problems, the country entered an economic depression before the end of the war that lasted for several years afterwards. The Continental Congress, with no authority to tax, regulate trade, or control the national economy, was powerless to do anything to help.

The final straw occurred in 1786-1787 in rural Massachusetts. Farmers who had lost their land due to debt, inflation and tax requirement, struck back against their creditors and local governments. Led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, up to 4,000 farmers took up arms and stormed local courthouses, shutting them down and burning records of their debts. The Continental Congress, without any money or an army, was powerless to do anything about it. In the end, the Massachusetts militia crushed the rebel army, ending Shays Rebellion, but the uprising had alarmed the nation’s elite.

The trade problems, economic depression, and Shay’s Rebellion led many of the nation’s wealthy leaders to call for a stronger national government. These men, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, now believed that the country needed a strong, national government that could negotiate trade deals with other countries, settle disputes between states, regulate the economy, and maintain order. In response, Congress asked that the states send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider revising the Articles of Confederation.

In May of 1787, 55 delegates from twelve of the thirteen states (minus Rhode Island) attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to consider amending the Articles of Confederation. These men were all members of the country’s social, political and economic elite. They met in the same room in Philadelphia where, eleven years earlier, the Declaration of Independence had been approved. The idea of simply amending the Articles was quickly scrapped in favor of drafting an entirely new Constitution – in effect, create an entirely new national government for the country. Over the next few months, these delegates would do just that.

The basic model for the new Constitution was provided by Virginia’s James Madison, and is therefore known as the Virginia Plan. Madison’s proposal was to create a government with three separate branches (legislative, executive, and judicial), spreading power among the three to create a system of checks and balances. That national government, moreover, would be more powerful than any individual state. Using that basic framework, the delegates then spent the summer of 1787 hashing out the details of how those branches would be organized.

The first sticking point involved the question of how the legislative branch would be organized and how its members would be selected. Madison proposed a bicameral (two-part, or two-house) legislature, called the “congress,” with a lower house and an upper house. Madison proposed that the number of representatives each state had in both houses of congress would be based solely on the state’s population. This meant that larger states would get more representatives in both houses, giving the large states – like Madison’s Virginia – control over the legislature.

Not surprisingly, the small states rejected Madison’s plan for the legislature, proposing instead a unicameral (one-house) legislature where each state had the same number of representatives, regardless of population. The delegates from the large states rejected this plan, and a stalemate threatening to end the convention arose.

In the end, compromise prevailed. Introduced by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the “Connecticut Compromise” created for a bicameral legislature consisting of (1) an upper house called the Senate, in which each state would have two senators, and (2) a lower House of Representatives, in which the number of representatives for each state would be based on state population. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives would have to agree on any proposed law before it could take effect.

This compromise satisfied both sides. The smaller states had the same power as the larger states in the Senate, since they all had the same number of senators. The larger states had more power in the House of Representatives, since they would have more representatives on account of their larger populations. Moreover, as both houses had to agree in order to pass laws, the compromise guaranteed a balance of power between smaller and larger states.

The second sticking point concerned the issue of slavery. By 1787 most northern states had passed laws ending slavery, and the Continental Congress had even outlawed it in the Northern Ohio Valley territories. Southern slave owners, on the other hand, wanted the institution of slavery protected by the new national Constitution. Some Southern delegates demanded that their slaves to count as part of their state’s population when determining how many representatives their state had in the House of Representatives but not as population when determining how the state’s citizens would be taxed.

This hypocrisy and hubris was galling. If slaves were to be counted as population, Northerners argued, then they must also be given the right to vote. Moreover, if slaves were counted as a state’s population, Southern states would greatly increase their number of representatives in the House of Representatives, giving Southern states more power in Congress than the Northern states, which had given up slavery.

In the end, however, Northerners needed the approval of the southern states for a new Constitution and therefore a compromise, suggested by Northerners, was agreed to. The so-called “three-fifths compromise” provided that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining the population of each state, both for representation and taxation. That meant that every 5,000 slaves would count as 3,000 “persons.”

One final question facing the delegates was how to select the head of the executive branch – the President. A number of proposals were introduced, such as election by popular vote, selection by Congress, selection by state legislatures state governors, and even by chance. In the end, however, most delegates – the same wealthy, white men who had been running their state governments – feared a “pure” democracy where all men would be given the right to select their leaders. They believed that this would lead to a government chosen by the “rabble.”

They therefore created a method where the president would be chosen by a group of “electors” who themselves were chosen by the states, rather than directly by the voters. These electors were to meet in December after each presidential election to actually choose the president. This meeting, as well as this system, is called the Electoral College. Each state was given the power to decide how its electors would be chosen; in the first Presidential elections, most electors were chosen by the state legislatures (it was only after the Civil War (1861-1865) that all the states finally gave their citizens the right to choose their electors).

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was ready. Not every delegate was happy about the final version; fourteen left before the final document was approved, and three who remained refused to sign. Still, most delegates agreed with the assessment of Benjamin Franklin, who noted, “I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution, [but] I expect no better, and I am not sure that it is not the best.

Once signed, the document was sent to the Continental Congress, which quickly gave its approval. Then, it was forwarded on to the thirteen states for their decision on whether or not to ratify this new form of government, and truly become a new, “united” country.

Author: Ye Olde History Teacher

Teacher. Author. Pro: facts, reason, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anti: stupidity, ignorance, intolerance, inflexibility, hate, grifters.

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