Thorny issues debated

At this time, Washington wrote that the states were united only by a "rope of sand," and the prestige of the Congress had fallen to a low point. Disputes between Maryland and Virginia over navigation in the Potomac River led to a conference of representatives of five states at Annapolis in 1786. One of these delegates, Alexander Hamilton, convinced his colleagues that commerce was too much bound up with other questions and that the situation was too serious to be dealt with by so unrepresentative a body as themselves. He induced the gathering to call upon all the states to appoint representatives of the United States and to "devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." The Continental Congress was at first indignant over this bold step, but its protests were cut short by the news that Virginia had elected George Washington a delegate, and during the next fall and winter, elections were held in all the states but Rhode Island.

It was a gathering of notables that assembled as the Federal Convention in the Philadelphia State House in May 1787. The state legislatures sent leaders with experience in colonial and state governments, in Congress, on the bench, and in the field. George Washington, regarded as the outstanding citizen in the entire country because of his military leadership during the Revolution and because of his integrity and reputation, was chosen as presiding officer. The sage Benjamin Franklin, now eighty-one and mellow with years, let the younger men do most of the talking, but his kindly humor and wide experience in diplomacy helped ease some of the difficulties among the other delegates. Prominent among the more active members were Governor Morris, able and daring, who clearly saw the need for national government, and James Wilson, also of Pennsylvania, who labored indefatigably for the national idea. From Virginia came James Madison, a practical young statesman, a thorough student of politics and history and, according to a colleague, "from a spirit of industry and application . . . the best informed man on any point in debate." Massachusetts sent Rufus King and Elbridge Gerry, young men of ability and experience. Roger Sherman, shoemaker turned judge, was one of the representatives from Connecticut. From New York came Alexander Hamilton, just turned thirty and already famous. One of the few great men of colonial America absent was Thomas Jefferson who was in France on a mission of state. Among the fifty-five delegates, youth predominated, for the average age was forty-two.

The Convention had been authorized merely to draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation but, as Madison later wrote, the delegates "with a manly confidence in their country" simply threw the Articles aside and went ahead with the consideration of a wholly new form of government. In their work, the delegates recognized that the predominant need was to reconcile two different powers-the power of local control which was already being exercised by the thirteen semi-independent states and the power of a central government. They adopted the principle that the functions and powers of the national government, being new, general, and inclusive, had to be carefully defined and stated, while all other functions and powers were to be understood as belonging to the states. They recognized, however, the necessity of giving the national government real power and thus generally accepted the fact that the national government be empowered - among other things - to coin money, to regulate commerce, to declare war, and make peace. These functions, of necessity, called for the machinery of a national government.