Fifty-five of the most prominent men in America met in Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1787 to correct the problems with the Articles of Confederation. Instead of amending the Articles, as they were instructed to do by the Confederation Congress and by their state legislatures, the delegates drafted a completely new form of government that they submitted to the American people to ratify. For a variety of reasons, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention chose to meet in secret. Consequently, as a self-contained body receiving no assistance from outside, the Convention served as a classroom in the science of government with some of the most learned instructors in the country. Much of this instruction was utilized by delegates during the year-long debate over the ratification of the Constitution.
As the Constitutional Convention neared the end of its proceedings, most Americans were encouraged to accept whatever might be proposed. Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, however, warned his fellow delegates that the process of ratification should be hurried because opposition to the Constitution would steadily increase. Two other delegates—George Washington and Alexander Hamilton— took a more positive approach and encouraged states and private individuals not to oppose the Constitution merely because some of its provisions did not favor them.
One of the most difficult tasks facing the Constitutional Convention was the creation of a strong national executive. Recent experience under the Articles of Confederation without a separate federal executive and the expectation that George Washington would be the first President encouraged the formation of a strong executive. In fact, during the ratification debate, Thomas Jefferson in France, and Antifederalists “Federal Farmer” and Hugh Ledlie of Connecticut suggested that Washington was the most dangerous man in America because the Constitutional Convention had given too much power to the President expecting that Washington would fill that office. Although everyone felt confident that Washington would not abuse those powers, Jefferson, Ledlie, and “Federal Farmer” worried about subsequent administrations under a President Slushington.
Eighty-two years ago in 1939, three states belatedly ratified the U.S. Bill of Rights in a symbolic action commemorating Congress’ proposal of the amendments 150 years earlier in September 1789. In December 1789, Georgia was the only state that rejected all twelve of the amendments proposed by Congress, stating that the amendments were premature. Connecticut and Massachusetts also failed to ratify in 1789–1791 because their bicameral legislatures disagreed on how many of the twelve amendments should be ratified and neither state submitted an exemplification of what they had adopted.
A quarter century before the landmark decision of Marbury v. Madison enunciated the concept of judicial review, the Confederation Congress advocated the authority of courts to rule unconstitutional acts to be null and void. It was part of the process of making the Articles of Confederation into a viable uniquely-American parliamentary system of government.
Americans looked upon the Constitutional Convention with great anticipation. They hoped for much; but, with such high expectations, they feared the consequences of a lost opportunity. In two excerpts, written before and after the Convention sat, James Madison and James Wilson, two of the most important delegates, described what the Convention saw as its goal. According to Wilson: “The magnitude of the object before us filled our minds with awe and apprehension.”
The procedure established in ratifying the proposed new Constitution of 1787 was critical. Previous attempts to amend the Articles of Confederation had failed because of the requirement in the Articles for the unanimous approval of the state legislatures. Without an alternative method of ratification, it was unlikely the Convention’s proposal would be adopted. Consequently, politically astute alternatives were proposed and utilized in ratifying the new Constitution.
Throughout the colonial and Revolutionary eras, Rhode Island was the epitome of democracy. The legislature usually met for weekly sessions six times a year in five different towns within the tiny state. The state’s thirty towns held formal meetings on average nine times each year and regularly used the initiative and referendum. Rhode Island’s democratic proclivities often angered its neighbors. Such was the case when on three occasions in 1787 the legislature refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, when it repeatedly refused in 1788 and 1789 to call a state ratifying convention, and when in 1788 it submitted the Constitution directly to the people in a referendum conducted in town meetings. Ironically, Rhode Island’s referendum was condemned as anti-democratic even though it was the only time in the ratification process that the people actually voted on the new Constitution that began “We the People.”
Alexander Pope was the most commonly cited author in America’s Revolutionary era. Often simply referred to as “the poet,” Pope was regularly cited in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution. He viewed Mankind as an integral part of God’s universe forming part of a “Great Chain of Being” composed of inanimate objects, beasts of the wild, human beings, angels, and God. All were inter-connected, Pope wrote, in a system devised by God in which “Order is Heaven’s first law.” His most famous poem, An Essay on Man, popularized the optimistic philosophy of the Revolutionary era.
Although all Americans believed that the Articles of Confederation were defective, the procedure for amending the Articles that required the proposal by Congress and the unanimous approval of the state legislatures made it impossible to obtain amendments. Only through a special constitutional convention was a revision of the Articles achieved. The congressional resolution of 21 February 1787 calling for the states to appoint delegates to the convention served as the springboard for the new Constitution.