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Forging a New Nation, The Constitutional Convention

Confederation government, Confederation Congress, congressional representation, southern planters, Virginia Plan

International troubles, the postwar depression, and the near–war in Massachusetts (as well as similar but less spectacular events in other states) led to calls for stronger government at both the state and national levels. Supporters wanted a government that could deal with other countries, create a stable (deflated) currency, and maintain order in a society that some thought was becoming too democratic. Some historians call the citizens who felt this way cosmopolitans. They tended to be wealthy, with their fortunes tied to international trade. They included seaport merchants and artisans, southern planters, and commercial farmers whose foreign markets had been closed. Most of their leaders were former officers of the Continental (national) army and officials of the Confederation government—men whose wartime experiences had given them a political vision that was national and not local.

In the 1780s cosmopolitans were outnumbered by so-called locals, who tended to be farmers living in isolated, inland communities with only marginal ties to the market economy, and who tended to be in debt to cosmopolitans. In the Revolution, most locals had served in militias rather than in the national army, and they preserved a localist, rather than nationalist, view of politics. They also preserved a distrust of any government not subject to direct oversight by citizens. The new state governments had often reapportioned legislative districts to give new, fast-growing western counties greater representation. Locals tended to control legislatures and (as in Shays’ Massachusetts) promote debtor relief, low taxes, and inactive government—a situation that caused cosmopolitans to fear that the republic was degenerating into democracy and chaos.

In September 1786 delegates from several states met at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss ways to improve American trade. They decided instead, with the backing of the Confederation Congress, to call a national convention to discuss ways of strengthening the Union. In May 1787, 55 delegates (representing every state but Rhode Island, whose legislature had voted not to send a delegation) convened in Philadelphia and drew up a new Constitution of the United States. The delegates were cosmopolitans who wanted to strengthen national government, but they had to compromise on a number of issues among themselves. In addition, the delegates realized that their Constitution would have to be ratified by the citizenry, and they began compromising not only among themselves but also on their notions of what ordinary Americans would accept. The result was a Constitution that was both conservative and revolutionary.

The biggest compromise was between large and small states. States with large populations favored a Virginia Plan that would create a two–house legislature in which population determined representation in both houses. This legislature would then appoint the executive and the judiciary, and it would have the power to veto state laws. The small states countered with a plan for a one–house legislature in which every state, regardless of population, would have one vote. In the resulting compromise, the Constitution mandated a two-house legislature. Representatives would be elected to the lower house based on population, but in the upper house two senators would represent each state, regardless of population. Another compromise settled an argument over whether slaves would be counted as part of a state’s population (if they were counted, Southern representation would increase). The convention agreed to count each slave as three–fifths of a person.

The president would be selected by an electoral college, in which each state’s number of votes equaled its congressional representation. Once elected, the president would have important powers: The president appointed other officers of the executive department as well as federal judges. Commander-in-chief of the military, the president also directed foreign affairs, and could veto laws passed by Congress. These powers, however, were balanced by congressional oversight.

Congress, or just the Senate, had to ratify major appointments and treaties with foreign countries, and only Congress could declare war. Congress also had the power to impeach the president or federal judges, and Congress could override a president’s veto. The Constitution also declared itself the supreme law of the land, and listed powers that the states could not exercise.

Thus the Constitution carefully separated and defined the powers of the three branches of the national government and of the national and state governments. It established checks and balances between the branches—and put it all in writing. The stated purpose of the document was to make a strong national government that could never become tyrannical.

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