A New Government for the United States of America The Constitutional Convention – Philadelphia, 1787
The Founding Fathers Exceeding Their Authority… When individuals like Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison called for a Constitutional Convention in 1787, their stated goal was simply to amend the Articles of Confederation. Any more ambitious goal would have been viewed as a threat to liberty. They met “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Very quickly however, they determined to replace the entire system of government.
Montesquieu The French political philosopher Montesquieu believed that a republic could only work on a small scale – and that vast geographic regions like the United States were unlikely to create a successful republic. Yet, the Founding Fathers heartily adopted his plan to divide the powers of government between three branches. They took it a step farther, though, by also dividing power between the national and the state governments. This idea – dividing and limiting the power of government – was very important to the Founders, who jealously guarded their rights!
George Washington Because the Founding Fathers were venturing into “extra-legal” – or, revolutionary territory, by replacing the Articles of Confederation – they needed as much credibility as possible. George Washington’s willingness to participate in the process lent them all of the credibility that they needed to be successful!
Secrecy was maintained throughout the proceedings for three main reasons. First of all, what the Founding Fathers were doing was illegal! Secondly, they wanted to be able to speak their mind freely – that is, brainstorm – without being accountable for their ideas. Finally, many representatives would be forced to betray the interests of their states for the good of the nation, and no one wanted to be exposed as a traitor to the interests of their state. Secrecy at the Convention in Philadelphia.
James Madison, “The Father of the Constitution” James Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution” for two reasons. First, he kept very detailed notes of the deliberations which took place at the Convention. But more importantly, he was the author of the Virginia Plan. The Virginia Plan proposed a government with three branches – executive, judicial, and legislative. The Congress in Madison’s plan would consist of two legislatures, the Senate and the House of Representatives. In both houses of Congress, Madison proposed that representation should be based on the population of the states. This would favor large, populous states like Virginia.
Although most of the Founding Fathers found slavery to be reprehensible, many were willing to allow it to persist if it meant the Southern States would join the Union and the shipbuilding trade could profit from the slave trade. As a result, a compromise was brokered, allowing the Congress broad powers to regulate commerce – as long as the international slave trade could not be outlawed before 1808. The International Slave Trade and New England Commerce
The New Jersey Plan • Although today we think of New Jersey as a densely populated state, back in the 18th Century, it was considered a small state. • The New Jersey Plan would have created a legislature of two houses which would have awarded representation equally among the states.
The Great Compromise • The Great Compromise was an agreement between advocates of the Virginia Plan and advocates of the New Jersey Plan which was brokered by Roger Sherman. It created the current Congress of the United States. In the Senate, all states are represented equally: two senators a piece. In the House of Representatives, states are awarded representation based on their populations, so California has over 50 representatives, while sparsely populated Wyoming has only one.
The Three-Fifth Compromise • Southern states were outnumbered in terms of their population, and insisted on the three-fifths compromise. Even though enslaved men and women were not given any citizenship or voting rights, they would count as three-fifths of a person in terms of representation in the House of Representatives. Therefore, a state where a half a million enslaved people were held in bondage would have over 300,000 people added to its population when it came time to assign representatives in Congress.
The Electoral College The direct vote of the people did not – and still does not – elect the President of the United States. Instead, the general election is held in order to select “Electors” who are appointed by the parties. After the general election takes place, the Electoral College votes in order to select the President of the United States. Remember, the Founding Fathers feared too much democracy!