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By Carol Berkin. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to trade. United States. Constitutional Convention 2. United States—Politics and government—— Statesmen—United States—History—18th century. Constitutional history—United States. Their problems were not identical to ours, for the world they lived in was far different from our own.
Yet perhaps we can learn from the manner in which they confronted those challenges and what principles guided them in their task. Perhaps too, it will allow us to consider what to preserve and what to amend of their handiwork in order to aid us in resolving the issues of our day. What propelled these men from twelve of the thirteen existing states to journey to Philadelphia in May of ?
It was definitely not optimism or enthusiasm for the task ahead; instead, it was anxiety, urgency, and a pressing sense of responsibility. They were keenly aware that the ink was barely dry on the peace treaty securing American independence, yet the survival of their experiment in self-government was in grave doubt. The country was suffering from a host of problems: a lingering postwar economic depression; powerful foreign governments that eyed American territory greedily; high-seas attacks on American ships and unsatisfactory commercial relations with European nations; continuing Indian warfare in the West and along the southern borders; domestic uprisings; and the damaging return of old rivalries and commercial competition among the states.
Perhaps most humiliating, the country could not repay its wartime debts either to foreign allies or to its own citizens and veterans. In short, the country was in crisis. The lawyers and merchants and plantation owners at the Philadelphia convention were not dreamers but realists: they knew that the existing Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was intended only as a league of friendship among thirteen sovereign states, not as a union of their people. They knew its Congress lacked the authority to address the postrevolutionary crises it faced.
Although they had been tasked with proposing amendments to the Articles, they chose a far more radical reenvisioning of the American government. Over the next five months, they drafted a new constitution, one that created a unified nation and a government with sufficient power to address these crises. They would submit this new constitution to the judgment of the citizens. In short, they wanted to create what eighteenth-century men called an energetic government.
This plan followed closely the Anglo-American model familiar to most Americans. Its division of functions and powers among three distinct branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—could be found in the British government, the colonial governments, and the new state governments.
Much of the debate and discussion over the summer of focused on clarifying the powers of each branch and spelling out their relationship to one another. The delegates were committed to establishing a republic, and in a republic there could be no king, no queen, no dynasty of rulers. Instead, the ultimate sovereign must be the citizenry itself. The preamble to the new constitution made this clear: the government acknowledged and answered to but one sovereign, We the People. The delegates were keenly aware that establishing such a republic carried with it great risk.
As students of history, they knew that the republics of the past were short-lived. They had been destroyed from within, by the inevitable greed, lust for power, and corruption of those entrusted with governance, or by the moral decay, apathy, or unchecked passions of the people they governed.
The delegates could not guarantee the survival of their own republic, but they could build into its structure a complex set of checks and balances to protect, for as long as possible, against the human weaknesses history told them resided in all men.
What is remarkable, and admirable, is that they embedded these restraints even though they knew that they would be the men chosen to hold office in the new government. They had the humility to fear themselves and the wisdom to impose restrictions on what they considered their baser impulses.
Most of the remaining time at the convention was spent devising the criteria and the mechanisms by which legislators and the executive would be selected. Some of the problems that arose were logistical. For instance, the mechanism by which the president would be elected bedeviled the convention until its last weeks.
Other problems, however, laid bare competing regional interests and competing interests between the larger states and the smaller ones. It was often the case that solving one problem seemed to create a host of new ones. If it was agreed, for example, that the number of seats in the lower house of Congress would be allotted based on the population of a state, who would be counted for this purpose and who would be ignored? One of the most intense conflicts pitted nationalists like Madison and Hamilton against men eager to ensure that the states, as states, had a power base in the new government.
The decision that senators would be appointed by state legislatures was a defeat for the nationalists but a victory for southern delegates already concerned that their system of slavery had to be protected. At the same time, the insistence of small-state delegates that every state have the same number of senators carried over into the new government the problematic premise of the Confederation, that the government was a league of friendship among equal states.
An astute modern reader of these tense debates over the makeup of the Congress will see in them the divisive nature of the single innovation of the Constitution: federalism. This division of power has served as a primary engine of conflict in our national history, from the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, to the Hartford Convention, to the Nullification Controversy, the Civil War, and the battles over civil rights and cultural norms in our own lifetime.
The legacy of federalism is the constant tug-of-war between state sovereignty and federal authority. Despite the serious debates and sometimes fierce arguments that arose during the construction of the proposed new government, the process was largely one propelled by compromise. On critical issues such as the determination of representation in the House and the Senate or the rules governing population count in the states, opposing sides hammered out a compromise that gave some satisfaction to both.
What drove these compromises was their urgency of purpose: these men had come to Philadelphia to save their country from internal wars, external invasion, or economic collapse. There was no place for ideologues or a winner-take-all mentality in their deliberations. As Alexander Hamilton would later say, no one got everything he wanted, and no one got nothing he wanted; everyone got something he wanted.
The framers of the Constitution had no illusions that the document they had produced was perfect. Some felt it did not empower the new government enough; some feared it had given that government too much power. All hoped that the checks and balances they had included would be strong enough to deter the rise of oligarchy or tyranny.
These men did not purport to be visionaries; they knew they could not read the future, and they did not focus their deliberations on what the country and its citizens might need or want in the decades that would follow. Their goal was to address the immediate crises facing that country—and they knew that, in the end, their failures might well exceed their successes.
In short, they were not crippled by hubris. Although we have often spoken of them as demigods or geniuses, they did not make such a claim for themselves. Their admirable modesty can be seen in the inclusion in the Constitution of an amendment process that conceded their fallibility and invited future generations to adapt the government to their needs. In the centuries that followed ratification of the Constitution, Americans have in fact found it necessary to amend or to reinterpret this founding document.
These revisions began almost at once. During the first session of Congress, ten amendments, designed to secure the rights and liberties of the citizens, were passed and ratified by the states. Procedural adjustments soon followed. The election of prompted Congress to revise the method of electing the president. Six decades later, a war-weary generation would use the amendment process to end slavery and give political voice to African American men.
In the early twentieth century, the nineteenth amendment was added to expand the suffrage to women. Taken together, the fifteenth and nineteenth amendments transformed citizenship from a privilege to a birthright and made the republic more democratic. Many of the changes to our government structures and to our understanding of the role of the federal government in our lives have been effected outside the amendment process.
The establishment of a two-party political system, the emergence of seniority as an operating principle within Congress, and the tradition of the filibuster are all instrumental rather than formal adaptations of the Constitution. Over time, Supreme Court decisions have altered the social and legal landscape of the nation, and protest and reform movements had forced new understandings of the written Constitution.
I am often asked by students and by lecture audiences, What would the founders think of America today? I always answer that the convention delegates would undoubtedly be amazed by most of the changes in our political and social fabric. Not even the one true visionary among them, Alexander Hamilton, could have imagined that the United States would lead the free world, that an African American man would be elected president, or that a woman could be a candidate for this highest office.
They would be dazzled by our technology and perhaps overwhelmed by the global society it has helped to create. But they would not be surprised that the social and cultural topography of the United States in the twenty-first century defines a world so different from their own. They were, after all, students of history, and thus they knew that change was an imperative as powerful as continuity. A Brilliant Solution was written in hopes that understanding the events of will help us determine what changes are now needed and what continuities must be cherished.
It was the tenth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the third year of life in a new nation, but political leaders everywhere feared there was little cause to celebrate. Dark clouds and a suffocating gloom seemed to have settled over the country, and these men understood that something had gone terribly wrong.
From his plantation in Virginia, George Washington lamented the steady stream of diplomatic humiliations suffered by the young Republic.
Fellow Virginian James Madison talked gravely of mortal diseases afflicting the confederacy. In New Jersey William Livingston confided to a friend his doubt that the Republic could survive another decade. From Massachusetts the bookseller turned Revolutionary strategist, Henry Knox, declared, Our present federal government is a name, a shadow, without power, or effect.
The United States, he declared, was doing more harm to itself than the British army had ever done. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Monroe, Robert Morris—in short, men from every state—agreed that a serious crisis had settled upon the nation.
The question was could they do anything to save their country? It seemed like only yesterday that these same men, along with Americans everywhere, had greeted the future brightly. In Americans had looked forward confidently to reaping the benefits of independence. British economic oppression had ended as well. Free from the restraints imposed by British navigation, or trade, laws, American shippers, farmers, and planters looked forward to selling tobacco and wheat directly to foreign nations, and entrepreneurs looked forward to manufacturing finished products for sale to markets abroad.
Independence also meant that the rich farmlands west of the Appalachians were at last open to settlement, good news for ordinary farmers and perhaps even better news for major speculators like George Washington, the Lees of Virginia, and even Benjamin Franklin, who owned shares in large land companies.
Unfortunately, each of these blessings soon proved to have a darker side. True, the restrictions and injustices suffered in the colonial era had been eliminated but so, too, had many of the advantages of membership in the British empire.
An independent American merchant marine was free to carry American products to the ports of their choosing, but they no longer enjoyed the protection of the British navy on the high seas. New England fishermen had won the right to fish off Newfoundland, but they had lost the guaranteed British Caribbean markets for their catch.
Chesapeake tobacco planters had renounced their debts to Scottish merchants and English consignment agents when they declared independence, but in the process they had lost their most reliable sources of credit. And settlers faced no barriers to westward migration, but they could no longer rely on a well-trained and well-equipped army when Indians attacked.
Slowly, Americans realized their new dilemma: Who would provide the protection colonists once found in the sheltering arms of their mother country? The pessimism slowly engulfing men from Maine to Georgia was intensified by the lingering postwar depression in the South and in New England.
A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution
Nice little succinct book on the creation of the Constitution. The end of the book includes short biographies of everyone who took part in the convention whether he signed or not , and the text of the Articles of the Confederation and the Constitution itself. She has written five scholarly books and contributed to several collections of articles and textbooks. She lives in New York City. Carol Berkin. We know--and love--the story of the American Revolution, from the Declaration of Independence to Cornwallis's defeat. But our first government was a disaster and the country was in a terrible crisis.
A Brilliant Solution