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April 7, 2019

The Constitutional Convention

Fighting Words!

Independence was declared! The Revolutionary War was won! Now what? For the Founding Fathers and the citizens of the new United States of America, it was time to create a new government.

The Articles of Confederation served as the framework for a weak central government starting in 1777. But it was insufficient after the war. For example, states could conduct their own foreign diplomacy. The government couldn’t prevent British ships from dumping convicts in American ports. Congress didn’t even have the authority to regulate trade or enforce parts of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. When the federal government had to rely on local militia to quell Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786 (an uprising against heavy tax burdens and government coercion in tax collection), it was clear that the time for a more powerful national government had come.

The Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia between May and September of 1787. The first order of business was electing a president of the Convention (George Washington) and establishing rules, such as the secrecy of the deliberations (James Madison took good notes). The first proposal for the new government was the Virginia Plan. Among its recommendations was for both legislative chambers to be appointed by population, which upset the smaller states. In response, the New Jersey Plan limited federal powers and kept the one-vote-per-state representation from the Articles of Confederation, advocating for equal voting power.

It would take several months of negotiations between the delegates to come up with a blueprint for a new, stronger (but not too strong) government. The Connecticut Compromise resolved the issue of Congressional representation with the House of Representatives based on population and all states having two senators. Overall, the new federal government would have expanded powers, such as the executive branch conducting foreign affairs and the legislative branch retaining power to ratify treaties. Congress was also given new powers to regulate currency, the economy, and defense. In September, 39 of the 55 Convention delegates voted to adopt the new Constitution – just enough votes to win support from each of the 12 attending state delegations. After the necessary state ratifications, the Constitution became effective on March 4, 1789.

Did You Know …

Rhode Island was so distrustful of a powerful federal government that it refused to send delegates to the Convention. This was of little surprise as the state had already earned the nickname “Rogue Island.”

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