The Federal Constitution - Confederation And Constitution
congress power government virginia convention ratification jersey federalists madison york
The Philadelphia Convention. Virginia again took the lead in implementing the Annapolis proposals. After Congress timidly agreed, on February 21, 1787, to recommend revision of the Articles of Confederation, the state legislatures of Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and North Carolina moved swiftly to name delegates to the new convention. The full prestige of Virginia was thrown behind the convention with the appointment of a brilliant delegation headed by Washington. James Madison, the Virginian destined to influence the convention's outcome most thoroughly, intended to press for a massive reform of the Articles lest "little meliorations of the Government . . . turn the edge of some of the arguments which ought to be laid to its roots."
Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina acted to join the convention before its opening on May 14, 1787. In June, New Hampshire agreed to take part. But Rhode Island steadfastly refused to appoint any delegates. Though twelve of the thirteen states had agreed to participate, the composition of the New York delegation did not augur well for the nationalists. Neatly checking Hamilton were two supporters of state rights, Robert Lansing and John Yates, and both meant to oppose any drastic changes in the Articles. But the presence of his protégé, Hamilton, buttressed Washington's determination to remain at Philadelphia until a new document of govern-finally swung the balance in favor of a strengthened central authority.
The fifty-five delegates who gathered at Philadelphia were a distinguished lot. Ranging in age from Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, who was twenty-six, to Benjamin Franklin, who was eighty-one, they were drawn from a class that had gained experience in colonial, state, and national government. Nearly sixty per cent had attended college; most were lawyers, merchants, or planters. Washington and Franklin provided prestige and dignity, but the bulk of the work was performed by such energetic younger members as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, William Paterson, Elbridge Gerry, Rufus King, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Conspicuously absent were such worthies as John Hancock and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, and Patrick Henry of Virginia (who explained his absence by stating he "smelled a rat" in the proceedings). Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were engaged in diplomatic service abroad and could not attend.
The Virginia Plan. After electing Washington to preside over the meetings the convention went into secret session, thus permitting it to operate without substantial public interference. The heart of the subsequent discussions was set forth on May 29 by Edmund Randolph, in what was termed the Virginia Plan. It called for a thorough revision of the Articles, with the intention of strengthening the central government. It proposed a bicameral legislature: the lower house to be chosen by qualified voters in each state, with representation proportional either to free population or to the taxes contributed by the state; the upper house to be nominated by the state legislatures, and elected by the lower house. Members of either house could not serve successive terms and would possess one vote apiece. A one-term restriction was placed on the presidential office, which was vested with the executive powers previously granted to Congress. Provision was made for a Supreme Court and a federal judiciary, with the former possessing the power of judicial review. Both houses had the right to inaugurate legislation outside the competency of the individual states, and, together, the right to invalidate state laws that went contrary to the "articles of union." Amendments and the admission of new states were also provided for.
The plan provoked immediate protests from the smaller states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York, all of which feared that representation by population or wealth would condemn them to an inferior position. In the ensuing debate, Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed (June 13) the solution which ultimately settled the question of representation: "That the proportion of suffrage in the first branch should be according to the respective number of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more."
The New Jersey Plan. The deep fears of the small states were expressed in a stronger form on June 15, when William Paterson of New Jersey proposed a series of nine resolutions which came to be called the New Jersey Plan. It proposed a revision of the Articles "adequate to the exigencies of Government, and the preservation of the Union," and provided for a unicameral Congress with each state possessing one vote. The reformed government would have the power to raise revenue through duties on imports, to regulate interstate commerce, and to requisition money from states in proportion to their white population plus three-fifths of their slaves. It also called for a plural executive which would operate as a Board of Directors, elected by Congress and ineligible for re-election. The power of appointment for both civil and military posts was vested in the executive. A federal judiciary appointed by the executive authority was also provided for. Of particular significance in the New Jersey plan was the proviso that all laws and treaties made by Congress were to be "the supreme law of the land."
Compromise. The conflict between the small and the large states made compromise imperative. Hamilton called for a bicameral legislature with an upper house and executive possessed of considerable power and only indirectly elected by the people. This appeal met with strong opposition. On June 19, the Virginia Plan won out over the New Jersey plan, with only the states of Delaware, New Jersey, and New York opposed. Both sides had agreed in principle, however, that the situation demanded give and take. The great compromise known as the Constitution began to take shape on July 12, when representation to Congress was agreed upon. The House of Representatives was to be elected on the basis of population, with three-fifths of the slaves being counted. On July 12, it was agreed that the upper house should consist of two senators from each state. Once the crucial problem of the composition of Congress was settled, it was relatively easy to resolve conflicts over the executive, the regulation of internal commerce, taxation, and treaty-making powers.
Memories of George III made the delegates afraid of extending too much power, or too long a term of office, to an elected executive. Thus it was specified that the President would be elected for four-year terms.
Fear of a democratic electorate resulted in the establishment of an electoral college to perform the actual election of the President. In it, each state was to be represented "equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."
Disputes over the regulation of commerce grew out of Southern fears that Congress would use such power to destroy the slave trade. A compromise gave Congress control of "Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian tribes," but granted it the power to regulate the slave trade only after 1808. The question of slavery also provoked dispute over the basis for federal taxation. The North demanded a tax system based on population while the South wanted one that would be based on the wealth of the respective states. The South feared inclusion of its slave population for tax purposes. Congress also obtained the power, formerly held by the states, to coin money.
On September 17, all but three delegates (Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia) agreed to sign the new, federal Constitution.
Checks and Balances. The Constitution, as adopted, was a consummate expression of the checks and balances system derived from the political theory of such seventeenth-century British liberals as John Locke and James Harrington. The executive was vested with the veto power co-jointly with one third of the Congress. However, Congress could override the presidential veto with a two-thirds vote. Although not stated explicitly, the Supreme Court was assumed to have the power to declare a law unconstitutional. The new document reflected the considered fear of the delegates that an uninhibited democracy would tend to destroy the civil rights of a minority. As James Madison expressed it: "There is no maxim . . . which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong." Only the House of Representatives was chosen by a direct popular vote. Even Thomas Jefferson believed that such a method was "inferior," though the fact that the lower house had the power of taxation caused him to support it in this instance.
The Bill of Rights. Jefferson, writing from Paris, expressed to Madison his concern over the Constitution's lack of a Bill of Rights; but Madison believed that "these parchment barriers" were subject to constant violation "by overbearing majorities in every State." He thought a national majority would be no less apt to violate civil rights, but he supported a national bill of rights when he concluded it was necessary for ratification. The overwhelming preoccupation of the founding fathers was with individual liberty and the possible tyrannies of an uncontrolled majority. The new constitution committed "the majority of the Community" to protect the defenseless individual and his property. But, concerned with more than the bare economic rights of the individual, Madison defined "property" to mean not only "that domination which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual," but also "every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage." Possessing grave doubts about the perfectibility of the human character, the founding fathers worked for, and achieved, a balance between individual rights and necessary governmental powers. The Constitution did not specify whether the new central government or the states possessed sovereign power, though by making the Constitution the "supreme law of the land" it implied the subordination of the states. The exact implication of this definition was to manifest itself in the subsequent dispute over the strict or loose interpretation of the Constitution.
Ratification. The real struggle over the Constitution began when the Convention submitted it, on September 20, to the Confederation Congress. Despite the efforts of some Congressmen to censure the Convention delegates, Congress voted on September 28 to submit the Constitution to the states for ratification. This left the document's fate in the hands of nine states; the Convention had decided it would become effective only after that number had approved it.
As the fate of the Constitution hung in doubt, a sizable protest movement, which became known as the Anti-Federalists, was organized. Its most prominent spokesmen were Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, who voiced the fear that under the Constitution the well-born would dominate the government to the detriment of the common man. The most telling of the Anti-Federalist arguments was voiced by Richard Henry Lee: Our object has been all along to reform our federal system, and to strengthen our government . . . but a new object now presents. The plan of government now proposed is evidently calculated totally to change .. . our condition as a people.
Lee posed the conflict as one between "little insurgents, men in debt, who want no law, and who want a share of the property of others" and "more dangerous men, with their servile dependents," who "avariciously grasp at all power and property." It was to the faction in between that the Anti-Federalists made their appeal, for they made up "the weight of the community; the men of middling property, men not in debt, on the one hand, and men, on the other, content with republican governments, and not aiming at immense fortunes, offices and power."
Any effort to estimate accurately the relative strength of Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions is hazardous, although it is generally conceded that the Federalists were probably fewer in number. But the Federalists met this deficit by the caliber of their leadership. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay joined in composing the Federalist, eighty-five essays defending the Constitution, in order to persuade the uncertain state of New York to ratify the document. With unusual candor, the three authors set forth the pessimistic view of human nature that had guided the founding fathers. Madison argued in paper number fifty-one that the system of checks and balances included in the Constitution might "be a reflection on human nature," but he concluded, "what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature [for] if men were angels, no government would be necessary." Far from assuming that the intent of the Constitution was to prepare for a leveling movement, the Federalists took the position that government should provide the political institutions within which the natural talents and diversity of interests of the American society could find fullest expression.
The ratification conventions began to act when, on December 7, 1787, Delaware unanimously approved the document. Pennsylvania moved swiftly to ratify the Constitution by a margin of two to one on December 15; its speed was a tribute to the ruthless efficiency of the Federalist Party, which had thus prevented any effective, organized opposition by the Anti-Federalists. New Jersey ratified without opposition on December 18. Georgia, exposed to the constant threat of a hostile Indian and Spanish attack, saw in the Constitution greater security, and ratified unanimously on January 2, 1788. Two days later, Connecticut voted for ratification by more than three to one. Maryland added its support by a vote of almost six to one in late April of 1788.
But opposition to the Constitution was vigorous in Massachusetts, where resentment engendered by Shays' Rebellion still smoldered. Conservatives naturally favored ratification in the belief that a strong union would prevent similar outbreaks. The Anti-Federalists in the state strongly suspected that the proposed changes were a device of their enemies, designed to foist upon them a government detrimental to their interests. Only skillful maneuvering by the federal element in the convention secured ratification, by a narrow margin, in early February of 1788. (Most interesting of all was the lure used to gain the support of John Hancock; he endorsed ratification when he was given a tentative promise of support for either the presidency or vice-presidency.) On May 23, 1788, South Carolina quietly added its support by a vote of more than two to one. With this action, ratification by only one more state was needed to make the Constitution effective. In June, a reconvened ratification convention met in New Hampshire, and, overcoming its original doubts, subscribed to the Constitution.
Despite the requisite support of nine states, complete success was not certain until Virginia, the motive power behind the new Union, ratified. After a brilliant debate which gave full expression to the Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions, Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution on June 25, 1788. The uncommon eloquence of the Anti-Federalists had been matched by that of Madison and John Marshall; the Federalists had oratorically outgunned their opponents. Virginia's decision, together with the threat of New York City to secede and join the new union, finally broke the strongly Anti-Federalist bias of New York. On July 25, by a three-vote margin, New York ratified the Constitution.
North Carolina and Rhode Island alone remained as stubborn holdouts. In late July of 1788, despite the recent decision of New York and the example of its neighbor Virginia, North Carolina overwhelmingly rejected the Constitution. But the North Carolina Federalists, by strenuous effort, succeeded in reversing this decision the following year. Rhode Island stubbornly held out until May 28, 1790, when energetic pressure by its neighbors finally secured ratification. The second phase of the great experiment was under way.