Drafting the Constitution

The period between the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the drafting of the new Constitution in 1787 was one of weakness, dissension and turmoil. Under the Articles of Confederation, no provisions were made for an executive branch to enforce the laws nor for a national court system to interpret them. A legislative Congress was the sole organ of the national government, but it had no power to force the states to do anything against their will. It could -- theoretically -- declare war and raise an army, but it could not force any state to meet its assigned quota for troops or for the arms and equipment needed to support them. It looked to the states for the income needed to finance its activities, but it could not punish a state for not contributing its share of the federal budget. Control of taxation and tariffs was left to the states, and each state could issue its own currency. In disputes between states -- and there were many unsettled quarrels over state boundaries -- Congress played the role of mediator and judge, but could not require the state to accept its decisions.

The result was virtual chaos. Without the power to collect taxes, the federal government plunged into debt. Seven of the 13 states printed large quantities of paper money -- high in face value but low in real purchasing power -- in order to pay veteran soldiers and a variety of creditors, and to settle debts between small farmers and large plantation owners.

By contrast, the Massachusetts legislature imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes, triggering formation of a small army of farmers led by Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary War army captain. In a bid to take over the Massachusetts statehouse, Shays and others demanded that foreclosures and unfair mortgages be dropped. Troops were called out to suppress the rebellion, but the federal government took notice.

Absence of a uniform, stable currency also disrupted trade among the states and with other countries. Not only did the value of paper currency vary from state to state, but some states (like New York and Virginia) levied duties on products entering their ports from other states, thereby provoking retaliatory actions. The states could say, as had the federal superintendent of finance, that "our public credit is gone." To compound their problems, the newly independent states, having separated violently from England, no longer received favored treatment at British ports. When Ambassador John Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785, the British refused on the grounds that the individual states would not be bound by it. The British were also angered by the failure of Americans to pay for property confiscated during the Revolution.

A weak central government, without the power to back its policies with military strength, was inevitably handicapped in foreign affairs as well. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation's Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the peace treaty of 1783. To make matters worse, British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to various Indian tribes and encouraged them to attack American settlers. The Spanish, who controlled Florida and Louisiana, as well as all territory west of the Mississippi River, also refused to allow Western farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce.

Although there were signs of returning prosperity in some areas of the fledgling nation, domestic and foreign problems continued to grow. It became increasingly clear that the Confederation's central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, to regulate trade, to enforce treaties or to exert military force against foreign antagonists when needed. Internal divisions between farmers and merchants, debtors and creditors, and among the states themselves were growing more severe. With Shay's Rebellion of desperate farmers in 1786 vividly in mind and only recently crushed, George Washington warned: "There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to."

This sense of potential disaster and the need for drastic change pervaded the Constitutional Convention that began its deliberations on May 25, 1787. All of the delegates were convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the impotent Congress established by the Articles of Confederation. Early in the proceedings the delegates agreed that the new government would be composed of three separate branches -- legislative, judicial and executive -- each with distinct powers to balance those of the other two branches. It was also agreed that the legislative branch -- like the British Parliament -- should consist of two houses.

Beyond this point, however, there were sharp differences of opinion that threatened at times to disrupt the Convention and cut short its proceedings before a constitution was drafted. The larger states argued in favor of proportional representation in the legislature -- each state should have voting power according to its population. The smaller states, fearing domination by the larger ones, insisted on equal representation for all states. The issue was settled by the "Great Compromise," giving every state equal representation in one house of Congress, and proportional representation in the other. In the Senate, every state would have two seats. In the House of Representatives, the number of seats would depend on population. Because it was considered more responsive to majority sentiment, the House of Representatives was given the power to originate all legislation dealing with the federal budget and revenues.

The Great Compromise ended the rift between the large and small states, but throughout the long summer numerous other compromises were made. Some delegates, fearful of giving too much power to the people, argued for indirect election of all federal officials; others wanted as broad an electoral base as possible. Some wanted to exclude the western territories from eventual statehood; others saw the future strength of the nation in the virgin lands beyond the Appalachians. There were sectional interests to be balanced; differing views to be reconciled on the term, powers and method of selection of the president; and conflicting ideas on the role of the federal judiciary.

The way to compromise was eased by the high quality of the delegates to the Convention. Only a few of the great leaders of the American Revolution were absent: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- both future presidents -- were serving as America's envoys to France and England; John Jay was busy as secretary of foreign affairs of the Confederation. A handful of others, including Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, chose not to participate, believing that the existing governmental structure was sound. Of those in attendance, the best known by far was George Washington, hero of the Revolution, who presided over the Convention. Benjamin Franklin, the wise old scientist, scholar and diplomat, was also there. So, too, were such outstanding men as James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young lawyer from New York.

Even the youngest delegates, still in their 20s and 30s, had already displayed political and intellectual gifts. Thomas Jefferson in Paris wrote to John Adams in London: "It really is an assembly of demi-gods."

Some of the ideas embodied in the Constitution were new, but many were drawn from British governmental tradition and from the practical experience in self-government of the 13 states. The Declaration of Independence was an important guide, keeping the minds of the delegates fixed on the ideas of self-government and preservation of fundamental human rights. The writings of such European political philosophers as Montesquieu and Locke were also influential.

In late July, a committee was appointed to draft a document based on the agreements that had been reached. After another month of discussion and refinement, a second committee, headed by Gouverneur Morris, produced the final version which was submitted for signing on September 17. Not all the delegates were pleased with the results; some left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Of the 39 who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied, and their views were ably 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." He would accept the Constitution, however, "because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best."