On May 25, 1787, the convention held its first regular session, though some of the delegates did not arrive for several weeks. George Washington was chosen chairman, and the doors were closed to the public.1 As was generally expected, the convention made no attempt to amend the Articles of Confederation; it proceeded at the outstart to frame a new instrument.

Many of the delegates were ready to temporize, to deal in half measures, to produce an instrument that would "please the people." Others favored doing thorough work, of abolishing the Confederation and founding a federal republic. Among these was Washington; and he carried the day in a brief speech--one of the noblest speeches he or any statesman ever utter. "If, to please the people," said he, "we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God."

The Virginia delegates had carefully framed a form of government, which had been drawn up by Madison after consulting with others, and it was presented to the convention by Governor Randolph. This "Virginia Plan" provided for a complete change of government, for the formation of a federal union, with three coordinate branches of government--a legislative, an executive, and a judicial; and, most radical of all, it provided that the individual, and not the state as such, be directly responsible to the general government.

So radical were the changes proposed by this plan that it called forth another known as the New Jersey Plan, or the small state plan. This was presented by William Paterson of New Jersey2. It was a mere proposal to amend the Articles of Confederation. It provided for a plural executive and a judicial department, and gave enlarged powers to congress. But it gave the small states equal power in Congress with the large ones, and continued the old way of making the state instead of the citizen responsible to the nation. This plan, however, was defeated; and the Virginia plan, after many modifications, became the Constitution of the United States.

The long debates, which it is needless for us to follow, often became bitter, and on two or three occasions the convention came near breaking up. So unlike were the interests of the various sections represented that the delegates could agree only by compromising; and our Constitution is founded on three great compromises, the first of which was between the great and the small states.

Under the old Confederation the states had each one vote in Congress, regardless of size, wealth, or population; but the Virginia plan now proposed that the states be represented in the Congress, consisting of two houses, according to population or wealth. Instantly the small states were up in arms. The greatest state, Virginia, would then have sixteen votes, while Georgia or Delaware would have but one. No, they would submit to nothing of the sort; the large states would combine against the small ones, and the voice of the latter would not be heard in national affairs, and they would be reduced to a subordinate position. After a long, wrangling debate on this subject a compromise was reached. It was agreed that in the lower House the representation be based on population, while in the upper House, or Senate, each state be equally represented without regard to its population, wealth, or its territorial extent.3 Thus each state has two senators, while in the House of Representatives the number of its delegates is determined by its population. The Senate, therefore, was intended to represent the states, and the House the people.

The second compromise was between free and the slave states. The Northern states all had slaves before the Revolution, but they were now obviously drifting toward emancipation, while the institution was strengthening in the far South; and the dispute that arose in the convention over slavery was the beginning of that long and dreadful conflict which covered three fourths of a century and ended in a final appeal to the sword. The quarrel over this point was sharp and passionate, but it ended in compromise. Before it was decided whether to base the lower House on population or on wealth the question arose, Are slaves population or wealth? The northern delegates contended that as slaves had no and were bought and sold like other property, they should not be counted in the census that made up the representation in Congress, and in laying direct taxes. The South objected to this, claiming that all the slaves should be counted; and there was a deadlock. Madison suggested that, by way of compromise, three fifths of the slaves be counted. The South agreed to this, and the practice continued to the Civil War.

The third compromise, between commercial and agricultural states, also touched upon the slavery question. New England desired that Congress be given full control over foreign and interstate commerce. The southern delegates, fearing an export tax on farm products and a prohibition of the slave trade, desired that each state control its own commerce, as under the old régime. Another deadlock ensued. Before this question was settled another arose: Shall the African slave trade be prohibited? A large majority of the delegates opposed the foreign slave trade, and would have shut it off forever; but South Carolina and Georgia objected in thunder tones. They must have a constant supply of blacks for the rice swamps, they said, and they would not join the Union if the question were decided against them. The debates were fierce and the convention seemed on the verge of dissolution, as it had been several times before. Could a union really be formed? Some of the wisest men feared that their efforts would result in failure. Rhode Island had taken no part in the convention; the New York delegates had gone home in anger; Massachusetts was uncertain. If now the Southern states refused to join, it was certain that no union could be formed.

Two important questions were now before the House and again harmony was restored by compromise. The South yielded to New England, and Congress was given control over commerce (except that it was forbidden to lay an export tax); the North yielded to the slaveholders, and the African trade was left open, not forever, but until the year 1808.


1The members pledged themselves to secrecy, as they wished to present their work to the public, not in fragments, but as a whole. Madison, however, took elaborate notes of the proceedings, and his notes were published only after his death, fifty years later. many were the speculations of the people as to what the convention would do, and the members were deluged with letters from their constituents. Would they set up a kingdom? would the country be divided? would Rhode Island be cast out of the Union for not taking part? and many other such questions came from the people.Return
2Two or three other plans, or partial plans, were presented, but not considered. One of these, presented by Hamilton, was almost monarchial in its tendencies.Return
3At this juncture Yates and Lansing of New York, and a little later Luther Martin of Maryland, all of the extreme state rights party, went home in disgust.Return

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The Constitution, Created May 7, 2000, by Kathy Leigh Copyright 2003

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