The Philadelphia Convention (now also known as the Constitutional Convention, the Federal Convention, or the "Grand Convention at Philadelphia") took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to address problems in governing the United States of America, which had been operating under the Articles of Confederation following independence from Great Britain. Although the Convention was purportedly intended only to revise the Articles of Confederation, the intention of many of its proponents, chief among them James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was from the outset to create a new government rather than "fix" the existing one. The delegates elected George Washington to preside over the convention. The result of the Convention was the United States Constitution. The Convention is one of the central events in the history of the United States.
Before the Constitution was drafted, the thirteen colonies operated under the Articles of Confederation, created by the Second Continental Congress. The national government that operated under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to adequately regulate the various conflicts that arose between the states. These divides included a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over the Potomac River and Rhode Island's imposing taxes on all traffic passing through it on the post road that linked all the states. As the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states, any state had effective veto power over any proposed change. In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power: it was wholly dependent on the states for its money, and had no power to force delinquent states to pay.
On January 21, 1786, the Virginia Legislature, following James Madison's recommendation, invited all the states to send delegates to Annapolis, Maryland to discuss ways to reduce these interstate conflicts. At what came to be known as the Annapolis Convention, the few state delegates in attendance endorsed a motion that called for all states to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to discuss ways to improve the Articles of Confederation in a "Grand Convention." Rhode Island, fearing that the Convention would work to its disadvantage, boycotted the Convention entirely in hopes of preventing any change to the Articles, and when the Constitution was presented to the states, refused to ratify it.
The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included many of the Founding Fathers of the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, who was Minister to France during the convention, characterized the delegates as an assembly of "demi-gods." John Adams also did not attend, being abroad in Europe as Minister to Great Britain, but he wrote home to encourage the delegates. Patrick Henry was also absent; he refused to go because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." Also absent were John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the convention.
(*) Did not sign the final draft of the U.S. Constitution.
Due to the difficulty of travel in the late 1700s, very few of the selected delegates were present on the designated day of May 14, 1787, and it was not until May 25 that a quorum of seven states was secured. The convention convened in the Pennsylvania State House, and George Washington was unanimously elected as president of the convention. Although William Jackson was elected as secretary, Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 remain the most complete record of the convention.
Prior to the start of the convention, the Virginian delegates met, and using Madison's thoughts, work, and notes, came up with what came to be known as the Virginia Plan, also known as the "Large State" Plan. For this reason, James Madison is sometimes called the Father of the Constitution. Presented by Virginia governor Edmund Randolph on May 29, 1787, the Virginia Plan proposed a very powerful bicameral legislature. Both houses of the legislature would be determined proportionately. The lower house would be elected by the people, and the upper house would be elected by the lower house. The executive would exist solely to ensure that the will of the legislature was carried out and would therefore be selected by the legislature. The Virginia Plan also created a judiciary, and gave both the executive and some of the judiciary the power to veto, subject to override.
Immediately after Randolph finished laying out the Virginia Plan, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina presented his own plan to the Convention. As Pinckney did not supply a hard copy, the only evidence we have are Madison's notes, so the details are somewhat sketchy. It was a confederation, or treaty, among the 13 states. There was to be a bicameral legislature made up of a Senate and a House of Delegates. The House would have one member for every one thousand inhabitants. The House would elect Senators who would serve by rotation for four years and represent one of four regions. Congress would meet in a joint session to elect a President, and would also appoint members of the cabinet. Congress, in joint session, would serve as the court of appeal of last resort in disputes between states. Pinckney did also provide for a supreme Federal Judicial Court. The Pinckney plan was not debated, but it may have been referred to by the Committee of Detail.
After the Virginia Plan was introduced, New Jersey delegate William Paterson asked for an adjournment to contemplate the Plan. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had equal representation in Congress, exercising one vote each. The Virginia Plan threatened to limit the smaller states' power by making both houses of the legislature proportionate to population. On 14 and 15 June 1787, a small-state caucus met to create a response to the Virginia Plan. The result was the New Jersey Plan, otherwise known as the "Small State Plan."
Paterson's New Jersey Plan was ultimately a rebuttal to the Virginia Plan, and was much closer to the initial call for the Convention: drafting amendments to the Articles of Confederation to fix the problems in it. Under the New Jersey Plan, the existing Continental Congress would remain, but it would be granted new powers, such as the power to levy taxes and force their collection. An executive branch was created, to be elected by Congress (the plan allowed for a multi-person executive). The executives would serve a single term and were subject to recall on the request of state governors. The plan also created a judiciary that would serve for life, to be appointed by the executives. Lastly, any laws set by Congress would take precedence over state laws. When Paterson reported the plan to the convention on June 15, 1787, it was ultimately rejected, but it gave the smaller states a rallying point for their interests.
Unsatisfied with the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan, Alexander Hamilton proposed his own plan. It also was known as the British Plan, because of its resemblance to the British system of strong centralized government. In his plan, Hamilton advocated eliminating state sovereignty and consolidating the states into a single nation. The plan featured a bicameral legislature, the lower house elected by the people for three years. The upper house would be elected by electors chosen by the people and would serve for life. The plan also gave the Governor, an executive elected by electors for a life-term of service, an absolute veto over bills. State governors would be appointed by the national legislature, and the national legislature had veto power over any state legislation.
Hamilton presented his plan to the Convention on June 18, 1787. The plan was perceived as a well-thought-out plan, but it was not considered, because it resembled the British system too closely. It also contemplated the loss of all state authority, which the states were unwilling to allow.
The Connecticut Compromise, forged by Roger Sherman from Connecticut, was proposed on June 11. It blended the Virginia (large-state) and New Jersey (small-state) proposals. Sherman suggested a two-house national legislature, but proposed "That the proportion of suffrage in the 1st. branch [house] should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more." Although Sherman was well liked and respected among the delegates, his plan failed at first. It was not until July 23 that representation was finally settled.
Among the most controversial issues confronting the delegates was that of slavery. Slaves accounted for about one-fifth of the population in the American colonies. Most of them lived in the Southern colonies, where slaves made up 40 percent of the population. Whether slavery was to be regulated under the new Constitution was a matter of conflict between the North and South, with several Southern states refusing to join the Union if slavery was not allowed.
One of the most contentious slavery-related issue was the question of whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation in Congress or considered property not entitled to representation. Delegates from states with a large population of slaves argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation, but as property if the new government were to levy taxes on the states on the basis of population. Delegates from states where slavery had disappeared or almost disappeared argued that slaves should be included in taxation, but not in determining representation.
Another issue at the Convention was what should be done about the slave trade. Ten states had already outlawed it. Many delegates heatedly denounced it, but the three states, Georgia and the two Carolinas, that allowed it threatened to leave the convention if the trade were banned. They postponed the decision on the slave trade because of its contentious nature. The delegates to the Convention did not want its ratification to fail because of the conflict over slavery. Therefore, a special committee worked out another compromise: Congress would have the power to ban the importation of slaves, but not until at least 20 years had passed, in 1808.
In late July, the convention appointed a Committee of Detail to draft a document based on the agreements that had been reached. After another month of discussion and refinement, a second committee, the Committee of Style and Arrangement, headed by Gouverneur Morris, and including Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, Rufus King, and Madison, produced the final version, which was submitted for signing on September 17. Morris is credited, both now and then, as the chief draftsman of the final document, including the stirring preamble.
Not all the delegates were pleased with the results; some left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph, George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. George Mason demanded a Bill of Rights if he was to support the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was not included in the Constitution submitted to the states for ratification, but many states ratified the Constitution with the understanding that a bill of rights would soon follow. Of the 39 delegates who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied. Their views were summed up by Benjamin Franklin, who said,
"There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. ... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. ... It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies..."
The Constitution was then submitted to the states for ratification, pursuant to its own Article VII.