- The Articles of Confederation had created an ineffectual government and required revising, six years after its ratification
- The Philadephia convention was mandated to develop proposals for the revision of the Articles of Confederation
After six years, in 1786, the Articles of Confederation had established an inefficient government for the Union with the thirteen colonies failing collectively as a Union and individually as small nations. The Continental Congress did not have courts, no powers to levy taxes, regulate trade between the states and other countries and could not pass resolutions on the 13 states. The states continued making their own laws, the shortage of money for trade and the issue of states printing their own money was a problem the weak Continental Congress had to face with no powers to remedy.
Twelve states sent delegates to the Convention, with Rhode Island boycotting the convention, protesting the idea of having a strong central government. The presence of George Washington in the assembly was significant, in mobilising the support of the states. Majority of the delegates, were representatives in the Continental Congress, with first-hand experience on the limitations of the Congress in effectively governing the states. Others were former officers in the Continental Army, with expertise on the effects of the financial shortcomings of the Congress. Therefore, among the delegates, different national interests allowed for robust debates over the nature of the new Constitution.
Still, there were officers of the Continental Army who were left out from the convention. Among them were Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry who were openly critical of the idea of centralised government and of the compatibility of republican principles such as popular elections on territories such as the United States.
The delegates of the convention unanimously elected George Washington to be the President of the Convention and James Madison, later acclaimed as the “Father of the Constitution” knowledge and ability to find unifying solutions to divisive aspects such as the bill of rights and the voting capacity of the states against the size of the population.
The delegates built consensus among themselves that their primary objective was discarded the Articles of Confederation and propose a new Constitutional framework, contrary to the mandate given by the Continental Congress to revise the Articles based on its weakness.
The Virginia Plan
James Madison developed a plan concerning the nature of the legislature and fronted it to Edmund Randolph, the delegate representing Virginia, who Madison thought was a better orator. Edmund proposed a bicameral legislature whose functions among others would be appointing the President and the Court officials. Edmund’s proposals were called the Virginia Plan.
The other proposal part of the Virginia Plan and provided for a bicameral legislature. Representation in both houses would be equal to the populations in the states, meaning states with larger residents would have more representation than those in smaller states. This proposal was a resisted by the smaller states because they feared that their voices would be overtaken by the larger states.
A delegate from New Jersey, William Paterson developed an alternative plan addressing the concerns of the smaller states. The New Jersey plan proposed a unicameral legislature with each state having one vote, and Congress would be the most powerful arm of government, with the mandate to levy taxes and regulate trade. The executive and the judiciary would be separate arms and not as powerful as the Congress. Delegates from larger states were against the New Jersey Plan, stating that larger states deserved greater representation owing to their size.
The Great Compromise
There was a deadlock among the delegates of the smaller states and the bigger states, which required a compromise. Connecticut’s Rodger Sherman proposed a bicameral legislature that combined both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. In the proposal which is known as the Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise or the Sherman Compromise, the would be two houses, the lower and the upper. The Compromise proposed that the lower house is called the House of Representatives and its composition should reflect the population of the states, thus larger states to have more members and so forth. The proposed name for the upper house was the Senate, and its composition according to the compromise would be a limit of two delegates from each state. The elections of the Senators would be by the state legislatures, and the bills concerning taxes and revenue were to originate from the lower house and progress to the upper house once approved.
The Compromise went on to propose functions of the President to include the power to elect key officials such as the Judiciary leaders and the ability to veto legislation and to function as Commander-in-Chief of the military.
The Commerce Compromise
Trade regulation was the other contentious issue, the Northern states wanted federal tariffs to keep out cheap European imports thus widening the domestic tax base based on the volume of goods produced in the states. Cotton and tobacco-producing states, on the other hand, found a ready market in Europe and therefore did not an export tariff introduced. The southern states asked for a two-thirds majority rule on bills concerning trade. A Commerce Compromise was thus reached that there would be no tariffs on exports and a simple majority in Congress to pass bills on tax.
The Three-Fifth Compromise
Slavery was the next issue up for discussion, and the question was whether slaves ought to be regarded as people or property. The consensus was that slaves were not entitled to the same rights as the whites, but the Southern states, eager for more power, argued for slaves to be counted as people to increase the population size of the state and consequently the number of representatives in the House of Representatives. The Northern states, on the other hand, feared the idea of the powerful south and thus argued that slaves to be counted as property and subject to property tax to help raise revenue for the federal government. The Northern states also expected the African slave trade to progressively decline over time and argued for this to be reflected in the constitution. The southern states however resisted slave trade restrictions because the majority had slaves.
A compromise was reached, and slaves were to count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of population census. The constitution saliently referred to slaves as “all other persons.” The compromise also provided that Congress would not restrict overseas slave trade for the next twenty years. In 1808, Congress put a ban on the foreign slave trade.