In their book Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Christopher and James Lincoln Collier discuss the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the Constitution.
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Rather than describing the events of the Convention in chronological order, the Colliers discuss the major topics the delegates dealt with separately.
This is useful because delegates at the Convention did not always finish addressing each issue before moving on to another issue. They sometimes held off voting on controversial issues until later in the convention to let passions cool. Organizing the book in this manner makes Decision in Philadelphia easier to read.
The book begins by describing the state of America in 1787 and the defects in the Articles of Confederation. The country was unable to even pay interest on its foreign debt, partly because the Confederation Congress lacked the power to raise revenue from the states.
The states often enacted contradictory legislation, and had created their own separate currencies (Collier & Collier, 2007). By the time of Shays Rebellion, nationalists believed that changes in the Articles of Confederation were needed.
We then move into discussion of the Constitutional Convention. The authors provide brief biographies of many of the most influential delegates, including James Madison, Charles Pinckney, James Wilson, George Mason, and Eldridge Gerry.
This is useful in providing background on the main delegates at the convention and their motivations. For example, Madison was a nationalist who even proposed allowing the national Congress to veto state legislation (Collier & Collier, 2007). Pinckney’s main motivation was preventing the Convention from interfering with slavery in any way. Delegates at the Convention were forced to address these conflicting desires and somehow put together a functioning Constitution.
The book then goes on to discuss the major issues resolved at the Convention. While numerous issues are discussed, the two issues discussed at the most length are Congressional representation and slavery.
In some ways, this is an ironic choice by the authors. Of course, the issue of proportional representation versus equal representation for each state was probably the issue that was debated the longest at the convention. By contrast, slavery was discussed much less, and was discussed mainly in the context of avoiding interference with the institution.
The delegates could not even bring themselves to mention the words “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution. The authors recognize that the representation issue was the biggest issue that was resolved at the Convention. The slavery issue, of course, remained unresolved.
In discussing the representation issue, the authors focus on the main conflict between large states like Pennsylvania and Virginia and small states like New Jersey and Delaware.
The large states naturally wanted representation in the national Congress to be proportional to population. The small states already enjoyed equal representation under the Articles of Confederation, and were in no hurry to give up this right. The ultimate decision was to base representation in the upper house (the Senate) equally for each state, and to base representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) on population.
This is commonly described as a compromise, but nationalists like Madison actually viewed it as a great defeat. In their view, equal representation was the great flaw in the Articles of Confederation (Collier & Collier, 2007).
The authors discuss several aspects of the representation issue that have not received much attention. They point out that Southern states such as Georgia and South Carolina allied with the larger states to support representation by population, despite the fact that these Southern states were relatively less populated.
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There were several reasons for this. The most obvious reason is that under the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, the Southern states were to have their populations artificially inflated by slaves for representation purposes. However, the states in the Deep South also (mistakenly) believed that their states would soon see an increase in population (Collier & Collier, 2007).
Despite this unexpected support for the large states, the small states were eventually able to persuade the Convention to create a bicameral Congress, with each state represented equally in the Senate.
In large part, this was due to the stubbornness of the small states. Even if the large states had simply outvoted the small states in the Convention, the small states may have simply walked out and blown the convention up.
As a result, the large states were forced to go to great lengths to pacify the smaller states. Several delegates either changed their votes or stayed away from the proceedings to allow the “Connecticut Plan” to pass (Collier & Collier, 2007).
It helped that many nationalists preferred a bicameral legislature for unrelated reasons. Nationalists like Madison blamed the turmoil of the 1780’s on an excess of democracy, and believed that an upper house was necessary to prevent foolish legislation from becoming law.
According to the authors, alliances at the Convention shifted after the representation issue was resolved. The large states were no threat to the small states anymore, so the division between Northern and Southern states became the major dividing line at the Convention.
The authors believe that this was only natural. They point out that the division between large and small states was somewhat “artificial,” and has not been repeated in American history on major issues since the representation issue was resolved at the Convention (Collier & Collier, 2007). In contrast, the North-South split has been commonplace.
Of course, the main issue separating North from South at the Convention was slavery. By 1787, most of the Northern states had already enacted gradual emancipation legislation.
Slavery still existed in nearly all the Northern states, but the North no longer relied on slavery. By contrast, no Southern state had taken steps to abolish slavery. Some anti-slavery sentiment did exist in the South in 1787.
Most Southerners were willing to admit that slavery was wrong, and moderates in Virginia (including Thomas Jefferson) had proposed a gradual emancipation bill in the state legislature. However, the failure of that bill demonstrated the unwillingness of Southerners to interfere with the “peculiar institution.”
This was the context in which delegates at the Convention discussed slavery. Of course, no one proposed immediately abolishing slavery, or even forcing the South to take up gradual emancipation.
Southern delegates were intransigent even on other issues involving slavery, though. Most significantly, the South prevailed on the issue of how to factor in slaves for representation purposes.
Northern states like Connecticut did not want slaves to be considered in determining representation in Congress, but were forced to yield to the South (Collier & Collier, 2007). The result was the Three-Fifths Compromise. To the consternation of some Northern delegates like Gouverneur Morris, South Carolina also insisted on retaining the overseas slave trade for another 20 years.
It is important to point out that Northern delegates did not necessarily have noble motives. Northern states had previously proposed an amendment to the Articles of Confederation that would have taxed each state based on property.
This proposal would have included slaves in the population for taxation purposes. The South naturally objected, and the proposal was eventually changed to factor slaves in as three-fifths of a person (which is where the three-fifths number at the Convention came from). Although this proposal failed, it demonstrates the lack of conviction on the slavery issue by the North in the 1780’s.
The North had been perfectly willing to have slaves counted as “people” for taxation purposes. Northern delegates objected to factoring slaves in at the Convention not out of any great principle, but merely because factoring slaves in would have given the South an advantage in congressional representation.
There are several differences between Decision in Philadelphia and Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. The most obvious differences are differences of scope and style.
Decision in Philadelphia focuses solely on the Constitutional Convention, while the Convention is merely a chapter in The Glorious Cause. Middlekauff describes the Convention in a chronological format, while the Colliers focus on each issue separately.
Most of the major events at the Convention are discussed in both books, but the authors sometimes draw differing conclusions from these events. Both Middlekauff and the Colliers concede that many delegates distrusted the judgment of ordinary people.
However, the Colliers probably focus more on the implications of this view. They point out that the delegates created the Electoral College and provided for Senators to be elected by state legislatures to limit the amount of participation people had in the national government (Collier & Collier, 2007).
Delegates feared that the people would be unable to select wise representatives. Middlekauff acknowledges this, but focuses on the idea that delegates were representing the people at the Convention.
According to this view, sovereignty rested in the people rather than the states, and in ratifying the Constitution the people were simply choosing a means of electing representatives rather than having their power limited (Middlekauff, 1982).
The authors also differ on the major split in the Convention after the representation issue was resolved. As noted above, the Colliers state that the Convention divided into a North-South alignment.
As a result, much of the book addresses the slavery issue. Middlekauff spends less time focusing on slavery. Middlekauff also discusses the issue, but does not believe that the Convention was entirely aligned on a sectional basis.
He points out that individual delegates had their own opinions, and that many of the Southerners (such as Madison and Pinckney) were the most fervent nationalists (Middlekauff, 1982).
If slavery really was the only issue these Southerners cared about, it would have made more sense for them to oppose a powerful national government (and possibly even oppose the Constitution altogether). A powerful national government would have been more likely to abolish slavery than the weak Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
In many ways, the creation of the American political system was unique. This was certainly true in 1787, and delegates at the Convention realized it. All the most powerful nations in Europe in 1787 were monarchies.
Delegates at the convention had the opportunity to establish a republic in a brand-new nation. In particular, Madison had spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of faithfully representing the people in a republic.
In large part this was due to his nationalistic leanings. He feared that the people would invade the rights of property without adequate representation (Middlekauff, 1982).
Delegates may have feared the unchecked power of the people, but they also feared placing absolute power in any one branch of government. They recognized the weaknesses of men – including “elites” such as themselves.
The result was the creation of a system of checks and balances. Delegates thought that these checks and balances, along with the large size of America, would protect the rights of minorities. In a nation as vast as America, there are so many factions that it is difficult for one faction to gain absolute power over the others.
Although the Convention obviously established a stronger national government, it did so by grounding sovereignty in the people. In most nations at the time, government granted people certain rights (with the implication that these rights can be revoked when the government sees fit).
n America, the people granted certain rights to the government when they ratified the Constitution. This was obviously unique in 1787, and in some ways it is still unique today.
Collier, C., & Collier, J.L. (2007). Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Middlekauff, R. (1982). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.