Five Myths of the Constitutional Convention

Two hundred twenty-five years ago today, several dozen worried Americans met in Philadelphia to change the American government.  Some of the delegates to that 1787 convention intended only to rewrite the Articles of Confederation, which had been in effect for only six years but already were failing.  Others aimed to scrap the Articles entirely and design a new government from scratch.  After seventeen summer weeks of sweaty, contentious deliberations, thirty-nine of them signed the new Constitution of the United States – three refused to sign and several more had left Philadelphia in disgust with the emerging charter of government.

Many myths surround the “Founding” of the United States.  These five are among the more tenacious.

1.  The Constitution was drafted by disinterested statesmen who cared only for the good of the nation as a whole.

Many convention delegates championed the local interests of their states with only periodic regard to larger principles of democracy or sound government.  Delegates from “small” states – Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York – insisted that every state, no matter how big or small, should have the same voting power in Congress.  To counter the small states, delegates from the three large states (Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts) struck a deal with the three most Southern states:  when assigning congressmen to states based on population, each slave would count as three-fifths of a person, enhancing the political power of the South.  The alliance was only partly successful: After threatening to walk out of the convention, the small states won equal state representation in the Senate.

2.  Slavery was not an important issue at the Constitutional Convention.

            The delegates did not intend to address slavery, but they could not avoid the subject.  When designing proportional representation, they had to decide how to count enslaved people, who were almost one-fifth of the population.  The prospect of giving the national government the power to regulate commerce triggered Southern fears that it might used to outlaw the slave trade, or slavery itself.  To protect their way of life, Southern delegates bargained for a guarantee that slaves could be imported until at least 1808 and a pledge to return fugitive slaves to their owners.  Every delegate understood the contradiction between slavery and the revolution’s promise of liberty.  Some delegates belonged to anti-slavery societies (Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton); others had freed their slaves (William Livingston of New Jersey and John Dickinson of Delaware); and some, like Edmund Randolph and James Madison of Virginia, privately lamented the contradiction between their principles and their property.

3.  The United States was established as a Christian nation, or at least a religious one.

Meeting six days a week for seventeen weeks, the delegates addressed religion only twice.   At one particularly angry point in the summer, Franklin proposed that a clergyman deliver a benediction to start each day’s session.  Hamilton objected that when Americans learned of the practice, they would understand that the delegates were clashing.  Worse, a third delegate pointed out, there was no money to pay a clergyman, so the proposal was dropped.  The second episode came near the end of the summer.  The convention adopted the provision in Article VI of the Constitution that no “religious test” may be a condition for holding a government position.  Neither episode supports the myth.

4.  James Madison was the “Father of the Constitution.”

           

James Madison in his younger days

Madison was the best-prepared delegate, having spent months studying constitutions before the convention.  He helped outline the “Virginia Plan,” which served as the opening proposal for the new government.  Madison took the notes of the debates that remain the best source for what really happened that summer.  And he was an active participant in the debates.  Yet the final Constitution varied from the Virginia Plan in many ways, while a majority of Madison’s proposals were rejected or modified.  He bitterly regretted that the convention did not give Congress the power to veto state laws.  Moreover, the toughest issues before the convention were resolved by small committees of delegates that usually did not include Madison.  Only a few delegates were as important to the creation of the Constitution — James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge of South Carolina — but the Virginian was not more influential than any of them.

            5.  A grateful nation ecstatically embraced the final Constitution.

When the Constitution began to circulate in mid-September 1787, the initial response was enthusiastic.  Five ratified the new charter quickly and with little opposition.  Then, however, the process slowed and the questions became pointed.  Where was the bill of rights to protect individual liberties?  How could states preserve their sovereignty against the central government?  Wouldn’t overlapping national and state governments crush citizens with taxes and bureaucracy?  The ratifying conventions in Massachusetts and Virginia became donnybrooks, with pro-Constitution forces eking out narrow victories.  New York ratified only because ten other states already were already forming the new government.  The last two states waited even longer.  North Carolina ratified almost seven months after George Washington took office as the first president of the United States, while Rhode Island did not join until six months after that, in late May 1790.  Honoring a pledge made in his campaign for Congress, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights and shepherded it through the first Congress; those ten amendments took effect in 1791, only three years after the Constitution was ratified.

Comments

  1. The author could have added a sixth myth probably more prevalent than any he cited. The myth of a “runaway” convention. This has been used to suggest an Article V Convention called for in the Constitution should not be held because it might become a “runaway” convention. You can read the 748 applications from 49 states for a convention call. The Constitution mandates a call if 34 states submit 34 applications. Returning to point: the author failed to mention that the ratification conventions he briefly mentioned were sponsored by the states and that numerous votes in the legislatures and affirmation by the governors were required in each state for there even to be a ratification vote at all. As the author suggests, the debate over the Constitution was pointed and close–hardly befitting the term “runaway” convention. Indeed, if one state house or even one governor had vetoed one bill related to the ratification conventions the terms of the Articles of Confederation would have prevented the creation of the Constitution as law of land. For it to happen over 600 votes (including those in the convention itself to create the document) had to be unanimous.

    • David Stewart says:

      I don’t think the terms of the Articles of Confederation made any difference in the ratification of the Constitution. The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention decided to ignore the articles, and the Constitution was an entirely new charter adopted by “We, the people,” not by the states. The Articles were a creature entirely of the states, not of the people.

      As for the “myth” of the runaway convention, that’s actually a myth I subscribe to. I think a convention would be a pretty dicey operation, with lots of risk. Things would need to be really really bad (as they were in 1786) before a convention would be a good idea.

  2. Forgot to mention the location of the applications. See http://www.foavc.org.

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