CHAPTER VI. THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION (1787-1789).
By May, 1787, delegates to the proposed convention had been chosen in all the States except New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Many of the ablest and most experienced public men were included. Among them were Francis Dana and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and James Madison and George Washington of Virginia. The convention was the most distinguished body which had ever assembled in America; if its work could not command public confidence, there was no hope for the Union.
61. DIFFICULTIES OF THE CONVENTION (1787).
[Task of the convention.]
When on May 25, 1787, the convention assembled at Philadelphia, its task, under the call of Congress, was limited to the preparation of amendments to the old Confederation. The first formal resolution to which it came after organization reads as follows: "That a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme legislature, executive, and judiciary." The convention from the beginning was evidently resolved to recommend a new, elaborate, and powerful form of government. The key to this action is found in the history of the twelve years from 1775 to 1787. The country had tried a revolutionary, irresponsible, form of government, and it had not worked well. It had tried a union of sovereign States; neither the Union nor the States had prospered. The time had come to change the government in form, in powers, and in the means of carrying out its powers. The States must be held to their duties; Congress must be restrained; local quarrels must cease; revenue must be secured, commerce protected, and treaties guaranteed; the West must be saved, and insurrections put down. The first duty of the convention was to repair the errors of the Confederation.
[Want of authority.]
Americans have become accustomed to look upon the Constitution as a kind of political revelation; the members of the convention themselves felt no sense of strength or inspiration. They had no authority of their own. Their work must be submitted for the ratification of States which had been unable to agree upon a single modification of the articles. They must encounter the jealousy of Congress and the prejudices of the people. While the convention sat, a rumor went abroad that they would report in favor of a monarchy.
In order to bring the discussion to a focus, the Virginia delegates had agreed upon a plan drawn by Madison, who had been in communication with Washington; it was presented by Edmund Randolph. This plan in the end formed the basis of the constitution as adopted.
No sooner had debate actually begun than the convention proved to be divided into many factions. Some members, like Patterson, were on principle opposed to a strong government; others, like Hamilton, desired to break down the State boundaries, and to create a centralized republic. Still more distinct was the opposition between the large States and the small: the former inclined to a representation based on population; the latter insisted that the States should be equal units. Again, the trading States - New England, New York, and Maryland - were inclined to grant large powers over commerce; the agricultural States, particularly Virginia, wished to see commerce regulated still by the States in part. Another line of division was between the slaveholding and the non-slaveholding States; here the champions were Massachusetts on one side, and South Carolina on the other. Throughout the convention these various elements combined and recombined as their interests seemed affected. Although there were no permanent parties, the members of which regularly voted together, there was disagreement and disappointment from the beginning to the end.
62. SOURCES OF THE CONSTITUTION.
Another popular delusion with regard to the Constitution is that it was created out of nothing; or, as Mr. Gladstone puts it, that "It is the greatest work ever struck off at any one time by the mind and purpose of man." The radical view on the other side is expressed by Sir Henry Maine, who informs us that the "Constitution of the United States is a modified version of the British Constitution ... which was in existence between 1760 and 1787." The real source of the Constitution is the experience of Americans. They had established and developed admirable little commonwealths in the colonies; since the beginning of the Revolution they had had experience of State governments organized on a different basis from the colonial; and, finally, they had carried on two successive national governments, with which they had been profoundly discontented. The general outline of the new Constitution seems to be English; it was really colonial. The President's powers of military command, of appointment, and of veto were similar to those of the colonial governor. National courts were created on the model of colonial courts. A legislature of two houses was accepted because such legislatures had been common in colonial times. In the English Parliamentary system as it existed before 1760 the Americans had had no share; the later English system of Parliamentary responsibility was not yet developed, and had never been established in colonial governments; and they expressly excluded it from their new Constitution.