On this day in 1787, the Second Constitutional Convention embarked on a four month-long process that resulted in the masterful document responsible for shaping our country.
Though battered and bruised today, the Constitution of the United States remains the framework for our nation’s government. On May 25, 1787, however, the Founders had no assurances of such success. The current form of government – the Articles of Confederation – was fundamentally flawed, and it seemed possible that the young nation would fail before it really began. The state legislatures were unable to get the unanimous consent needed to pass necessary changes to the Articles. More drastic action was required if the United States were to survive.
This action came in the form of the Virginia Legislature, led by James Madison. In a bold move, the Virginia Legislature invited the other states to join them in Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786, to discuss current interstate conflicts. It became clear to those who attended the Annapolis Convention that the conversation about government had to address the defects of the Articles of Confederation head on. The delegates suggested that a “Grand Convention” be called in Philadelphia the next May, so that all the states might discuss how to improve the Articles.
As Gordon Lloyd asked in a lecture at the Heritage Foundation: what authority did the Virginia Legislature have to call for the Annapolis Convention, and with what authority did the Annapolis Convention call for the convention in Philadelphia? “The answer is to be found in the Declaration of Independence: The people have the right to choose the form of government under which they shall live and to install such government as they deem appropriate to secure their liberty, security, and happiness.” With this understanding, the first delegates from seven states gathered on May 25, 1787.
On his website, Gordon Lloyd divides the summer of the Constitutional Convention into a drama of four acts. It is a valuable resource for any student of the Constitution, and worth a brief summary here. Act I (May 1787) centers primarily around the Virginia Plan, which was a proposal for a bicameral legislature, with representation based on state populations. The New Jersey Plan, one of a unicameral legislature with equal representation for all states, is also proposed and championed by the smaller states, who fear losing their voice to the larger states under the Virginia Plan. Nevertheless, the Virginia Plan is largely adopted, resulting in a bicameral legislature.
In Act II (June and July), the Convention is at a stalemate, as many delegates are concerned that they have exceeded the Congressional mandate to simply revise the Articles of Confederation, and are worried about the possible failure of an extended republic. The Connecticut Compromise (adopted in mid-July) assuages the majority of these fears as it blends both federal and national characteristics, thus enabling a republic to succeed on a large scale. Under the Connecticut Compromise, we first encounter the form of Congress that we have today: one in which the House represents the individual people, and the Senate represents the states more completely.
In Act III (July and August), the first drafts of the Constitution are crafted, as a result of debates over specific Congressional powers. Regional struggles are especially evident in the notes from this time, as debates regarding the trade and practice of slavery moved to the forefront.
Act IV (September) encompasses the final three weeks of the Convention. Congressional matters have largely been decided, and the delegates move their attention to the executive branch. After much debate pitting national and federal powers against each other, the Electoral College is proposed and adopted: as with the Connecticut Compromise, the president would be elected by a combination of the people and the states. The final draft of the Constitution is written. On the last day of the Convention, James Madison records this in his notes:
Whilst the last members were signing [the Constitution] Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.
Condensing the momentous summer of 1787 into four short paragraphs runs the risk of de-emphasizing its significance. We ought to delve into a study of the Convention, and recognize the incredible work done by brilliant, patriotic men at a time when their country’s very survival was in question. It should be our task this summer to return to the constitutionalism they painstakingly crafted, and to defend it against further attacks.