Constitutional Convention 1787

By Michelle Pina

The Constitution

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia met between May and September of 1787 to address the problems of the weak central government that existed under the Articles of Confederation. The United States Constitution that emerged from the convention established a federal government with more specific powers, including those related to conducting relations with foreign governments. Under the reformed federal system, many of the responsibilities for foreign affairs fell under the authority of an executive branch, although important powers, such as treaty ratification, remained the responsibility of the legislative branch.

Annapolis Convention: Onward to Philadelphia

Although all 13 colonies were invited to attend, only delegates from 5 states attended. Among the delegates was Alexander Hamilton of New York, who convinced the convention that nothing short of new design for government was needed. It was decided to meet at Independence Hall in May 1787.

The Theory of James Madison's Plan

James Madison believed that protection for liberty lay in the structure of government, not in a listing of "parchment" guarantees. As he saw it, the primary threat to liberty in the past had come from oppressive majorities capturing the reigns of power. Madison's solution, as he proposed it in Philadelphia, was to "enlarge the sphere" by transferring much power to the federal government. Because the nation is comprised of many more and more diverse communities of interests than are individual states, it becomes much more difficult for any one interest group to become a majority and capture control of power. Rather than see competing factions as a danger, Madison saw the saving multiplicity of interests as a protection for liberty: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Madison further aimed to block the ability of an oppressive majority from working its will against minorities by dividing power within the national government into three relatively co-equal branches, each of which would be given weapons to fight the other.

The Delegates

It has often been remarked that in the journey of life, the young rely on energy to counteract the experience of the old. And vice versa. What makes this Constitutional Convention remarkable is that the delegates were both young and experienced. The average age of the delegates was 42 and four of the most influential delegates——Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, Governed Morris and James Madison——were in their thirties. Over half of the delegates graduated from College with nine from Princeton and six from British Universities. Even more significant was the continental political experience of the Framers: 8 signed the Declaration of Independence, 25 served in the Continental Congress, 15 helped draft the new State Constitutions between 1776 and 1780, and 40 served in the Confederation Congress between 1783 and 1787.

September 17: Constitution Signed

There were two recorded votes on this day. Eleven states were present and voted. The delegation — as distinct from the individual delegates — agreed on singing the Constitution and also agreed “to deliver the journals and papers to the President.” The Constitution was presented and read aloud; several delegates, including Franklin, expressed concerns, yet restrained their reservations in order to achieve a sense of unanimity and secure “a more perfect” union. Changed representation in the House of Representatives from 1:40,000 to 1:30,000 at the request of Washington. Would Randolph now sign? Randolph”s prediction: “Nine states will fail to ratify the plan and confusion must ensue.” Franklin disagreed; we have a rising rather than a setting sun.