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Constitution Day: The Convention
September 12, 2005
By Virginia Jelatis, History
The summer heat was especially brutal in Philadelphia in 1787, as temperatures reached the mid-nineties, with high humidity and few breezes. Delegates to the convention wore full, formal attire, including wool breeches, coats and heavy powdered wigs. The windows were closed tight to ensure privacy, leaving the rooms with a musty, stale smell. Despite the unpleasant conditions, the fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island did not participate) labored from May to September, discussing, debating, and drafting the Constitution of the United States.
The reason for the convention was clear: the existing system of government, the Articles of Confederation, was not working. Under the Articles the federal government lacked the authority necessary to run a nation, and the country seemed poised on the edge of collapse. Because Congress could not tax, the country owed millions of dollars in loans that it could not repay. Congress was also unable to enforce treaty agreements made with Spain, France, and England. Closer to home, citizens were frustrated by runaway inflation, vast unemployment, and lack of foreign markets for trade goods. The Philadelphia convention was called because many Americans believed the country would not survive if these problems were not addressed.
Solving the problems, however, was not an easy task. Some delegates believed that the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with an entirely new system of government. This group, known as the Federalists, argued that the federal government needed greater powers. People like James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney proposed the idea that a strong central government, carefully constructed so that no one area had too much power, could oversee the needs of the people, protect their liberties, and still deal effectively with the foreign nations of the world.
The opposing group, the Anti-Federalists, feared a large, central government and argued that power should remain at the state level. Men like Martin Luther and Edmund Randolph reminded others that they had just fought a war to rid themselves of the large, unresponsive centralized English government. The Articles of Confederation, they argued, was a fundamentally sound system; it just needed a few modifications to address specific problems.
After weeks of debate, the delegates agreed to discard the Articles, choosing instead to follow the leadership of the Federalists and write a new U.S. Constitution. Although delegates continued to fine tune the document for several more weeks, the new plan granted the federal government new powers, including the right to tax, and created a system of checks and balances that would ensure that no single branch of government would claim too much authority. The final draft of the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, then sent to the states for ratification.
In order for the Constitution to be adopted, nine of the thirteen states needed to ratify the document. This was not, however, a simple task. Anti-federalists charged that the document, as it stood, posed a danger to individual liberties. It should at least, they argued, contain a Bill of Rights. Federalists countered these charges, and argued that the lack of strong centralized authority would allow anarchy and chaos to destroy the new nation. The newly proposed Constitution was their only hope to protect the newfound freedoms won in the recent War of Independence. Both sides took their case to the press, as newspapers published articles, letters, and opinion pieces for and against the proposed constitution. The Federalist Papers, written mostly by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton provided strong support for the Constitution. When Federalists finally agreed to compromise and add a Bill of Rights, the biggest points of contention were resolved.
The Constitution was approve when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified the document on June 21, 1788. Within another two years, the remaining four states also ratified the document. With George Washington serving as the first President, John Adams as Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton as the Treasury Secretary, leaders set about the task of solving old problems within a new system of government.
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