The Philadelphia Convention


philadelphia convention
The interior of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, venue for the 1787 convention

The economic dire straits of the nation, coupled with growing unrest in rural areas, created much talk among the state elites. There was particular concern about the condition of trade and commerce, which had not recovered since the war and showed no signs of doing so. Powerful interests from Virginia called for an inter-colonial summit to discuss how the problems might be rectified: the result of this was the Annapolis Convention of September 1786. Though representatives from only five states turned up for this meeting, there was unanimous agreement that the Articles of Confederation needed reform. The Annapolis delegates, lacking enough numbers to make any authoritative changes themselves, instead convened another gathering of state representatives, this time in Philadelphia for 1787. Two of those present at Annapolis, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, would have crucial roles in the new society.


A total of 55 delegates – hitherto known as the ‘Founding Fathers’ – gathered for four months during May-September 1787, meeting in the same building utilised by the second Continental Congress for much of the war. After electing Washington to fill the role of chairman, the delegates decided at the outset to hold their meetings in camera, releasing no minutes or records, requiring all members to swear an oath of secrecy, and posting guards on the door to prevent eavesdropping. Confident they could speak honestly and openly without their words being reported or misreported, the delegates began discussing the future of the nation. One of their first conclusions was that the Articles were too loose and too flawed to be effectively amended; it was decided to scrap them and create a new written political framework. Their states had given them no brief to take such a radical measure, and the Articles themselves required a two-thirds majority of states to initiate any change. However many in the convention saw no alternative: if the Articles were at the root of their problems, their abandonment was necessary for the public good.

“Looking back, we might argue that the founding fathers’ dire predictions and sense of impending doom were exaggerated. Perhaps the nation’s recovery from post-war economic depression was simply slow, not impossible. Perhaps a compromise providing funds to the [national] government so that it could honor its debts would have eventually been hammered out. Perhaps the states, weary of bickering and sabotaging one another, would have revived policies of co-operation in matters of trade and commerce. Perhaps back-country farmers would have abandoned direct action in favor of the slower processes of legislative reform. [But] our job is to understand motivations and actions of historical figures, and to do this we must begin with their perceptions of their present and their future.”
Carol Berkin, historian

Having cast off the Articles in favour of a new document, the Convention began to consider what kind of new political system this might be. Individuals and factions within the Convention began tabling their own plans for a system of government, each named for a state or the individual who devised it: the New Jersey Plan, the Virginia Plan, the Hamilton Plan, the Dickinson Plan. Each was read, explained, queried, discussed and hotly debated; scenarios were proffered and legal implications considered (since more than two-thirds of delegates were lawyers, they were eminently qualified for this). The Virginia Plan, almost entirely written by James Madison, was accepted as the best governmental model on offer, however it was not accepted unconditionally. Many aspects of the Constitution actually reflect a series of compromises between competing interests – national versus state power, larger states versus smaller states, north versus south, city versus country, those wishing slavery to endure versus those who wish it to end. The Convention’s ability to balance these different interests is, in many respects, the most ingenious aspect of the Constitution.

Much has been written and theorised about the 55 delegates, their background, their economic status and what impact this might have had on the Constitution they created. Charles Beard’s then-controversial 1913 text An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution speculated that because the Founding Fathers were all members of the wealthy elite, their economic self-interest was a motivating factor behind the Constitution, whether consciously or otherwise. It is certainly true that all were prosperous white males, almost all were well educated and held some kind of public office at state or local level. The majority were quite young, in their 30s or 40s, the notable exceptions being Washington (55) and Benjamin Franklin (81). Some were open in their support of slavery and some, like Washington, actually owned slaves; however there was also a small abolitionist group amongst the delegates which would have preferred to see slavery outlawed.


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