This post is the second part of a series and will make more sense if it is read in order. If you haven’t read the first post, please click here to start with it. One reason I’ve broken this series into fairly small parts is that we have a tendency to rush through reading the Constitution and miss a lot of it. I hope the readers of this series will ponder the points in each session. I also hope you will comment on each post as we go along.
Throughout this series on the Constitution, my comments will be in black normal font, and the text of the document and comments which accompanied the version I’m using will be in this color and italicized.
Representatives of Maryland and Virginia, meeting at Mt. Vernon to discuss trade problems between the two States, agreed to invite delegates from all States to discuss commercial affairs at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786. Although delegates from only five States reached the Annapolis Convention, that group issued a call for a meeting of all States to discuss necessary revisions of the Articles of Confederation.
It’s significant that this meeting took place at George Washington’s home in Virginia. At that time in history, Virginia was more or less the epicenter of the movement for political freedom. If Virginia was the epicenter, George Washington was its leader, making this most appropriate. It’s also interesting that, although this initial call was for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, this idea quickly gave way to that of creating a brand new form of government and basing it on a written constitution.
Responding to this call and the endorsement of the Continental Congress, every State except Rhode Island selected delegates for the meeting in the State House at Philadelphia. The document printed here was the product of nearly four months of deliberations in the Federal Convention at Philadelphia. The challenging task before the delegates was to create a republican form of government that could encompass the 13 States and accommodate the anticipated expansion to the West. The distribution of authority between legislative, executive, and judicial branches was a boldly original attempt to create an energetic central government at the same time that the sovereignty of the people was preserved.
From our perspectives in the 21st century, 250 years after our nation declared its independence from England, it’s difficult to look through the eyes of the men attending this convention. So many things we take for granted were radical, untried ideas at that time.
Nations had long been governed by kings or emperors whose power was either absolute or almost absolute. England had had a parliament for centuries, but kings rode roughshod over those bodies and did pretty much what they wanted. The idea of any government run by officials elected by the people they governed was almost unique.
Dividing power among three branches of equal importance was a completely untested idea. The men gathered in Philadelphia had observed what happens when an executive—whether given the title of king or whatever—wielded unbridled power. They wanted to create a system wherein an overzealous executive branch could be reined in by one of the other two branches.
Also unprecedented was the concept of federalism—a government with two different levels of authority. The colonies didn’t want to give up their identities to melt into one big pot, but these leaders had seen the faultiness of too much sovereignty on the parts of the states and too little for the central government. They worked hard to come up with an ingenious plan which protected the individuality of the states while at the same time vesting enough power in the central government to make everything function properly.
The longest debate of the Convention centered on the proper form of representation and election for the Congress. The division between small States that wished to perpetuate the equal representation of States in the Continental Congress and the large States that proposed representation proportional to population threatened to bring the Convention proceedings to a halt.
Over several weeks the delegates developed a complicated compromise that provided for equal representation of the States in a Senate elected by State legislature and proportional representation in a popularly-elected House of Representatives. The conflict between large and small States disappeared in the early years of the republic. More lasting was the division between slave and free States that had been a disturbing undercurrent in the Convention debates. The Convention’s strained attempt to avoid using the word slavery in the articles granting recognition and protection to that institution scarcely hid the regional divisions that would remain unresolved under the terms of union agreed to in 1787.
Imagine for a moment that they had created only a Senate, with each state given two seats, regardless of the state’s population. It would take dozens of voters in Texas or California to equal the power of one voter in Wyoming or Montana. The unfairness of such a system is patently obvious.
On the other hand, what if they had created only a House of Representatives, wherein membership was allotted only by population? The representatives of California, Texas and a few others could ignore the needs and desires of smaller states—again creating an unfair situation. The bicameral system, with membership in one house based on population and in the other, equal membership for all states regardless of population, assured us that neither the small states nor the large ones could take unfair advantage of the other.
The slavery issue was not addressed in the Constitution and remained in status quo until the northern states took it upon themselves to force their will upon the South.
The debates in the State ratification conventions of 1787 and 1788 made clear the need to provide amendments to the basic framework drafted in Philadelphia. Beginning with Massachusetts, a number of State conventions ratified the Constitution with the request that a bill of rights be added to protect certain liberties at the core of English and American political traditions.
The First Congress approved a set of amendments which became the Bill of Rights when ratified by the States in 1791. The continuing process of amendment, clearly described in the note of the [Constitution’s] text, has enabled the Constitution to accommodate changing conditions in American society at the same time that the Founders’ basic outline of national government remains intact.
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact these wise patriots gathered in that convention in Philadelphia didn’t think about enumerating the rights set out in the Bill of Rights, but the important point is that they realized there had to be a mechanism for amending the document they passed. This allowed the addition of the Bill of Rights soon after the original Constitution was ratified.
“We’ve given you a republic, if you can keep it.”
For more information about David N. Walker, click the “About” tab above.
For more information about his books, click on “Books” above.
Contact him at dnwalkertx (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx.