Constitutional Convention

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Constitutional Convention,

in U.S. history, the 1787 meeting in which the Constitution of the United StatesConstitution of the United States,
document embodying the fundamental principles upon which the American republic is conducted. Drawn up at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the Constitution was signed on Sept.
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 was drawn up.

The Road to the Convention

The government adopted by the Thirteen Colonies in America (see Confederation, Articles ofConfederation, Articles of,
in U.S. history, ratified in 1781 and superseded by the Constitution of the United States in 1789. The imperative need for unity among the new states created by the American Revolution and the necessity of defining the relative powers of the
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, and Continental CongressContinental Congress,
1774–89, federal legislature of the Thirteen Colonies and later of the United States in the American Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation (see Confederation, Articles of).
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) soon showed serious faults. Congress, powerless to enforce its legislation, was unable to obtain adequate financial support. Although its achievements were not so inconsiderable as has been commonly thought, Congress was, on the whole, impotent, and federal authority was too weak to be of consequence. The central government also was unable to require fulfillment of any obligations it entered into with foreign nations.

Severe economic troubles produced radical economic and political movements, such as Shays's RebellionShays's Rebellion,
1786–87, armed insurrection by farmers in W Massachusetts against the state government. Debt-ridden farmers, struck by the economic depression that followed the American Revolution, petitioned the state senate to issue paper money and to halt foreclosure
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. The monetary schemes of the states brought floods of paper money, which some of the states, notably Rhode Island, attempted to force creditors to accept. The threat to economic stability alarmed the wealthy conservative class; the merchants, who found the state tariffs not to their liking, were also harassed by the impossibility of making stable agreements with the English merchants. They were anxious to have a stronger federal government to guarantee order and property rights. The men who had money invested in Western territories also favored a stronger federal government controlling the territories. Therefore, agitation for the adoption of a stronger union grew steadily in force.

Its advocates were zealous. James MadisonMadison, James,
1751–1836, 4th President of the United States (1809–17), b. Port Conway, Va. Early Career

A member of the Virginia planter class, he attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), graduating in 1771.
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 and George WashingtonWashington, George,
1732–99, 1st President of the United States (1789–97), commander in chief of the Continental army in the American Revolution, called the Father of His Country. Early Life

He was born on Feb. 22, 1732 (Feb. 11, 1731, O.S.
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 in Virginia, Alexander HamiltonHamilton, Alexander,
1755–1804, American statesman, b. Nevis, in the West Indies. Early Career

He was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton (of a prominent Scottish family) and Rachel Faucett Lavien (daughter of a doctor-planter on Nevis and the estranged
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 in New York, and James WilsonWilson, James,
1742–98, American jurist, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. near St. Andrews, Scotland. He studied at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and, after emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1766, taught Latin at the College of Philadelphia (now Univ.
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 (1742–98) and Benjamin FranklinFranklin, Benjamin,
1706–90, American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer, b. Boston. The only American of the colonial period to earn a European reputation as a natural philosopher, he is best remembered in the United States as a patriot and diplomat.
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 in Pennsylvania all favored some new scheme. The pamphlet of Pelatiah WebsterWebster, Pelatiah,
1726–95, American writer, b. Lebanon, Conn., grad. Yale, 1746. A Philadelphia businessman, he is remembered for his advocacy in his Dissertation of the Political Union and Constitution of the Thirteen United States of North America
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 was important, although it has been, perhaps, overemphasized by enthusiasts; feeling for union was general.

It was chiefly through the efforts of Madison that Virginia and Maryland agreed to a conference concerning navigation on the Potomac. The conference met in 1785 at Alexandria and at Mt. Vernon, but it was discovered that no agreements could be reached without the concurrence of Pennsylvania and Delaware. The upshot was the calling of a general convention of the states to discuss commercial problems.

This met at Annapolis in Sept., 1786, but delegates from only five states—Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware—arrived. The delegates therefore announced the calling of a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, to meet at Philadelphia in May, 1787. Notice was sent to Congress, but the new convention was launched as an extralegal body; cautious Congressional endorsement came only after five states had already selected their delegates.

The Constitution Emerges

The convention at Philadelphia drew up one of the most influential documents of Western world history, the Constitution of the United States. All the states except Rhode Island sent representatives. The delegates mainly came from the wealthier and more conservative ranks of society and included, besides Washington and the other proponents already mentioned, such leaders as Edmund RandolphRandolph, Edmund,
1753–1813, American statesman, b. Williamsburg, Va.; nephew of Peyton Randolph. He studied law under his father, John Randolph, a Loyalist who went to England at the outbreak of the American Revolution.
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, Gouverneur MorrisMorris, Gouverneur
, 1752–1816, American political leader and diplomat, b. Morrisania, N.Y. (now part of the Bronx); a grandson of Lewis Morris (1671–1746), he was born to wealth and influence. He studied law and was admitted (1771) to the bar.
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, Robert Morris, William PatersonPaterson, William,
1745–1806, American political leader and jurist, b. Co. Antrim, Ireland. He emigrated to America as a child. Raised in New Jersey, he practiced law there and was attorney general (1776–83) of the state before he became a delegate to the Federal
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, Charles PinckneyPinckney, Charles,
1757–1824, American statesman, governor of South Carolina (1789–92, 1796–98, 1806–8), b. Charleston, S.C.; cousin of Charles C. Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney.
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, Charles Cotesworth PinckneyPinckney, Charles Cotesworth,
1746–1825, American political leader and diplomat, b. Charleston, S.C.; brother of Thomas Pinckney and cousin of Charles Pinckney. After attending Oxford and the military academy at Caen, France, he returned to Charleston, where in 1769 he
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, Abraham BaldwinBaldwin, Abraham,
1754–1807, American political leader, b. Guilford, Conn. After serving as a chaplain in the American Revolution, he studied law and in 1784 was admitted to practice in Georgia.
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, Luther MartinMartin, Luther,
c.1748–1826, American lawyer and political leader, b. New Brunswick, N.J. He practiced law in Maryland and became the first attorney general of the state, holding office from 1778 to 1805 and again from 1818 to 1822 (although he was inactive in his last two
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, and Roger ShermanSherman, Roger,
1721–93, American political leader, b. Newton, Mass. Sherman helped to draft and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was long a member (1774–81, 1783–84) of the Continental Congress, helped to draw up the Articles of Confederation, and
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.

Washington was elected to preside, and the convention immediately set about drawing up a new scheme of government. However, it found itself faced with a rift: the smaller states wanted to retain their power, and the larger states wanted to have power determined by population. It was agreed that the new Congress should be made an effective body, but as to its composition there was great difference of opinion.

The fundamental question was the apportionment of power in the new government. Edmund Randolph offered a plan known variously as the Randolph, the Virginia, or the Large-State Plan; it provided for a bicameral legislature, with the lower house elected according to population and the upper house elected by the lower. William Paterson offered the New Jersey, or the Small-State, Plan; it provided for equal representation of states in Congress. Neither the large states nor the small states would yield, and for a time it seemed that the convention would founder. Oliver EllsworthEllsworth, Oliver,
1745–1807, American political leader, 3d chief justice of the United States (1796–1800), b. Windsor, Conn. A Hartford lawyer, he was (1778–83) a member of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. His great service was at the U.
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 and Roger Sherman put forward a compromise measure that gradually won approval; this provided for a lower house to be elected according to population (the House of Representatives) and an upper house to be chosen by the states (the Senate). This initial compromise defused the threat of a walkout by the small states, and the convention settled down to complete its task.

It was agreed that Congress should have the power to levy direct but not indirect taxes. The matter of counting slaves in the population for figuring representation was settled by a compromise agreement that established that three fifths of the slaves should be counted in apportioning representation; slaves were to be treated as property in assessing taxes. Controversy over abolishing the importation of slaves ended with agreement that the importation should not be forbidden before 1808. There were, naturally, many other points of argument, and some of the delegates were so disgusted that they went home and later led the fight in their states against the ratification of the Constitution.

James Madison was responsible for much of the substance of the Constitution, but the style was the work of Gouverneur Morris. The convention was in session until Sept. 17, 1787, and the document was then sent to the states for ratification. Delaware ratified it first, on Dec. 7 of that year. There were serious struggles in most of the states (see Federalist, TheFederalist, The,
series of 85 political essays, sometimes called The Federalist Papers, written 1787–88 under the pseudonym "Publius." Alexander Hamilton initiated the series with the immediate intention of persuading New York to approve the Federalist Constitution.
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; Federalist partyFederalist party,
in U.S. history, the political faction that favored a strong federal government. Origins and Members

In the later years of the Articles of Confederation there was much agitation for a stronger federal union, which was crowned with success when the
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), especially since the convention had obviously gone beyond its mandate merely to amend the Articles of Confederation.

North Carolina and Rhode Island rejected the Constitution, but the majority clause brought the Constitution into force without them by the end of June, 1788, and they were later forced to accept it. The thesis, associated with the name of Charles Austin BeardBeard, Charles Austin,
1874–1948, American historian, b. near Knightstown, Ind. A year at Oxford as a graduate student gave him an interest in English local government, and after further study at Cornell and Columbia universities he wrote, for his doctoral dissertation at
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, that the Constitution was framed solely to further the economic interest of special groups, notably creditors, land speculators, and holders of public securities, has not been generally accepted by historians.

Bibliography

See C. A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913, repr. 1960); M. Farrand, The Framing of the Constitution (1913, repr. 1962) and Fathers of the Constitution (1921); C. Van Doren, The Great Rehearsal (1948); M. Jensen, The New Nation (1950, repr. 1962); F. McDonald, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958, repr. 1962) and The Formation of the American Republic (1967); J. J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789 (2015).

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