1787 Philadelphia, PA
The hot, humid summer of America’s transformation of the Articles of Confederation into the U.S. Constitution creates a unique design. The process for calling and completing it was 170 years at the time.
By Mike Kapic – January 12, 2018
1787 Constitutional Convention
Having recognized the inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation, the people, state legislatures, and Congress began discussing ways “to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Three separate entities called for a convention.
Call and Subject:
The Annapolis convention ended on September 14, 1786 and proposed a follow up convention that the states “concur, and use their endeavours to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia. . .” Arguably, this represented the formal call to Philadelphia.
If not, the Virginia legislative resolution of November 23, 1786, in part, stated, “…to assemble in Convention at Philadelphia as above recommended and to join with them in devising and discussing all such Alterations and farther Provisions as may be necessary to render the Foederal [sic] Constitution adequate to the Exigencies of the Union and in reporting such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress as when agreed to by them and duly confirmed by the several States…”
On the same day, New Jersey’s legislature also called for a convention under the same subject and, feeling confident enough, elected several commissioners.
By mid-February 1787, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Georgia, (in that order) had selected commissioners. On February 21, 1787, the letter the Congressional Committee had received from the Annapolis convention was moved on with a “strongly recommended” citation to the states that they should devise “such farther provisions as shall render the same adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”
At that point, the New York congressional committee members, citing their limiting instructions, objected. They moved to postpone the committee report, and they offered a resolution by which Congress would recommend to the states a convention only “for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Their insistence on that wording confirms that people understood that the convention recommended by the delegates at Annapolis, endorsed by seven states, and promoted by this congressional committee was not limited to proposing changes in the Articles. It was to propose changes to the federal political system.
New York’s motion to postpone was defeated in committee. All the states, except New York and Massachusetts, had granted their commissioners broad enough powers to reform the Articles of Confederation and to not just revise the document.
At this point, none of the seven states moved to narrow their commissions. In fact, more states joined: Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina were given broad authority by their legislatures. Massachusetts and New York restricted their commissions to amending the Articles. Not having the full authority explains why two of the three New York delegates left early. Commissioners from Massachusetts and New York who signed the Constitution could be charged credibly with exceeding their powers.
Date and Location:
The convention met from May 24 to September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The building was then known as the Pennsylvania State House and is today known as Independence Hall.
Twelve states sent 55 commissioners: CT(3), DE(5), GA(4), MA(4), MD(5), NC(5), NH(2), NJ(6), NY(3), PA(7), SC(4), VA(7). RI declined to attend out of fear of approving a large national government and having to pay taxes to support it.
The commissioners elected George Washington president of the convention. Non-delegate William Jackson was elected secretary.
- This was a general or national convention.
- The composition, protocols, rules, and prerogatives of the convention were well within the pattern set by prior multi-colonial and multi-state gatherings. There were few, if any, innovations.
- Seventeen of the commissioners had been to previous conventions.
- As was true of prior assemblies of this kind, the overwhelming majority of delegates at Philadelphia were selected by the state legislatures.
- As at prior conventions, the delegates all were empowered through commissions issued by their respective states, and were subject to additional state instructions. All but a handful of delegates remained within the scope of their authority or, if that was no longer possible, returned home.
- As previous gatherings had done, the Constitutional Convention adopted its own rules.
- The convention kept its own journal.
- The convention established and staffed its own committees,
- Suffrage was the same: one state, one vote.
- The commissioners “authorized to conclude nothing, but . . . at liberty to propose anything,” as pointed out by James Wilson. (Except New York and Massachusetts)
All the states, except two, were granted plenipotentiary or full authority with no limits to their commissioners thus giving delegates to those states unrestricted authority to reform the Articles of Confederation. New York and Massachusetts were restricted.
- It is, perhaps, truly extraordinary that so many writers today have repeated the claim that Congress called the Constitutional Convention and legally limited its scope. But the historical facts are different:
- First, three constituencies, the 1786 Annapolis convention assembled, the Virginia and New Jersey legislatures were the only authorities calling for the Philadelphia convention.
- The Confederation Congress had no power to issue a legally-binding call. If the states decided to convene, as a matter of law they—not Congress—fixed the scope of [the convention and] their delegates’ authority.
- Third, by its specific wording the congressional resolution was not even a recommendatory call or restriction. Congress dropped the formal term “recommended” in favor of expressing “the opinion of Congress.”
- The call for “Alterations and farther Provisions, etc.” gave the convention the authority to do whatever was necessary to “render the federal Constitution adequate.”
- Represented in each of Articles I, II, III, IV, of the Constitution are parts of the original Articles of Confederation.
- The name of the document changed.
- The composition, protocols, rules, and prerogatives of the convention were well within the pattern set by prior multi-colonial and multi-state gatherings. This was to be expected, since at least 17 commissioners in Philadelphia had attended prior multi-government conventions. Some particularly influential delegates, such as John Dickinson, Roger Sherman, and Oliver Ellsworth, were veterans of several.
- Benjamin Franklin, on exiting the state hall was asked, (by Mrs. Elizabeth Powel), “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
- The framers were so afraid of creating a democratic form of government ruled by citizen groups rather than states and their individuals, that they devised complicated tenants within the document to ensure it would be a republic. That ensured the Declaration’s statement that governments, “derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” For example, Article II, Section 1, engineered the Electoral College to give political equality to all the states.
- Article VII of the new Constitution did something the Articles of Confederation did not do and that was to authorize the people to approve the document.
- This convention operated no differently than the way the previous and post-Constitutional conventions operated.
- The convention of states Constitution birthed and then directed how the federal government was to function.
(Ed: This is an excerpt, Chapter 27, from Conventions That Made America: A Brief History of Consensus Building by Michael Kapic. 108 pages, 2018, including source notes. It identifies the simplicity of the conventions operation of nearly 40 of the notable conventions among the more than 654 recorded conventions over 400 years of American history. The series begins in 1620 through to the last held in 2017. This convention is the one that codified the common convention process into law. For a basic understanding of what the 1787 convention might have looked like, click here for a 7-minute video summary of the 2017 Phoenix Planning Convention.)
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