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Constitution Of The United States

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CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES. The Constitution, which has served since 1789 as the basic frame of government of the republic of the United States, was the work of a constitutional convention that sat at Philadelphia from late May 1787 until mid-September of that year. The convention had been called into being as the culminating event of a lengthy campaign for constitutional reform staged by a number of nationalistic political leaders, above all James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, both of whom had long been convinced that the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION were hopelessly deficient as a frame of government. By 1786, the growing somnolence of the Confederation Congress, the manifest incompetence of the Confederation government in foreign affairs, and the obvious state of national bankruptcy, together with the sense of panic and dismay occasioned by SHAYS'S REBELLION in Massachusetts, had at long last spurred the states into concerted action.

The Virginia legislature issued an invitation to its sister states to meet in convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. As one after another of the other states responded, the Confederation Congress reluctantly joined in the call.

Twelve states in all sent delegates to the convention at Philadelphia. Rhode Island alone, then in the grip of a paper-money faction fearful of federal monetary reform, boycotted the meeting. In all, the twelve participating states appointed seventy-four delegates, of whom fifty-five actually put in an appearance. Of these, some fifteen or twenty men were responsible for virtually all of the convention's work; the contribution of the others was inconsequential.

Dominating the convention's proceedings from the beginning was a group of delegates intent upon the creation of a genuinely national government possessed of powers adequate to promote the security, financial stability, commercial prosperity, and general well-being of all of the states. Prominent among them were George Washington, whom the delegates chose as their presiding officer; James Madison, whose leadership in the convention would one day earn him the well-deserved title of "Father of the Constitution"; James Wilson, congressman and legal scholar from Pennsylvania; Gouverneur Morris, a brilliant and conservative aristocrat of New York background, also present as a Pennsylvania delegate; Rufus King, a highly respected veteran congressman from Massachusetts; and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Rutledge of South Carolina, representatives of that state's rice-planter aristocracy. In the nationalist camp also were the aged, garrulous, but vastly prestigious Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania; the pretentious but somewhat lightweight Edmund Randolph of Virginia; and Alexander Hamilton, whose extremist beliefs in centralized aristocratic government together with his inability to control the STATES' RIGHTS majority in the New York delegation cast a shadow on his convention role.

The nationalists also could command on most occasions the support of a group of moderate delegates who accepted the necessity for strong central government but were willing to compromise substantially with the convention's states' rights bloc when that proved necessary. Prominent among these men were Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Abraham Baldwin of Georgia.

A small, but significant, bloc of states' rights delegates was firmly opposed to the creation of a sovereign national government. Its leaders included William Paterson of New Jersey, the author of the New Jersey Plan; John Dickinson from Delaware; Gunning Bedford of Maryland; and John Lansing and Robert Yates of New York. These men recognized the necessity for constitutional reform but believed strongly that a confederation type of government ought to be retained and that by granting the Congress certain additional powersÐ'--above all the power to tax and to regulate commerceÐ'--the Articles of Confederation could be converted into an adequate frame of government.

Voting in the convention was by state, each state having one vote. On most occasions, the nationalist bloc controlled the votes of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the two Carolinas; on several critical decisions they proved able to muster the votes of Connecticut and Georgia as well. The states' rights party, by contrast, could count upon the votes of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, and occasionally Connecticut and Georgia. (New Hampshire was not yet represented in the convention.) Thus, the nationalist bloc in general controlled the convention. However, the states' rights delegates held one trump cardÐ'--their implicit threat to break up the convention if they did not obtain certain concessions deemed by them to be fundamental to their cause.

The nationalist faction demonstrated its power at the very outset of the proceedings. Following organization for business, Edmund Randolph rose and in the name of his state presented what has since become known as the Virginia PlanÐ'--a proposal for a thoroughly nationalistic frame of government. Without debate the convention accepted the fifteen resolutions of the Virginia Plan as the basis for its further deliberations. The outstanding characteristic of this plan was its provision for a government that would exercise its authority directly upon individuals, in contrast to the Confederation government's dependence upon the states as agents to effect its will. The plan thus called for a genuinely national government rather than one based upon state sovereignty. The Virginia Plan's nationalism was also apparent in the broad sweep of legislative power it granted to Congress: to legislate in all cases in which the states were severally "incompetent." An ill-conceived provision would have empowered Congress to use force against any state derelict in its obligations to the Union, a procedure the nationalists soon recognized as unwise and unnecessary in a genuinely national government that would no longer use the states as agents to effect its will.

For the rest, the Virginia Plan provided for a two-house legislature, the lower house to be elected by the people of the several states and the upper to be elected by the lower out of nominations submitted by the state legislatures. A separately constituted executive officer was to be elected by Congress for an unspecified term and to be ineligible for reelection. There was also provision for a national judiciary, a portion of which, sitting with the executive, was to constitute a "council of revision," with an absolute veto over all legislation.

All this added up to a proposal to junk the Articles of Confederation outright, and to erect a powerful



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