CHAPTER VI. THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION (1787-1789).
They were little more affected by the experience of other European nations. Just before they assembled, Madison drew up an elaborate abstract of ancient, mediaeval, and existing federal governments, of which he sent a copy to Washington. It is impossible to trace a single clause of the Constitution to any suggestion in this paper. The chief source of the details of the Constitution was the State constitutions and laws then in force. Thus the clause conferring a suspensive veto on the President is an almost literal transcript from the Massachusetts constitution. In fact, the principal experiment in the Constitution was the establishment of an electoral college; and of all parts of the system this has worked least as the framers expected. The Constitution represents, therefore, the accumulated experience of the time; its success is due to the wisdom of the members in selecting out of the mass of colonial and State institutions those which were enduring,
The real boldness of the Constitution is the novelty of the federal system which it set up. For the first time in history an elaborate written constitution was applied to a federation; and the details were so skilfully arranged that the instrument framed for thirteen little agricultural communities works well for forty-four large and populous States. A second novelty was a system of federal courts skilfully brought into harmony with the State judiciary. Even here we see an effect of the twelve years experience of imperfect federation. The convention knew how to select institutions that would stand together; it also knew how to reject what would have weakened the structure.
63. THE GREAT COMPROMISES (1787).
It was a long time before a compromise between the discordant elements could be reached. To declare the country a centralized nation was to destroy the traditions of a century and a half: to leave it an assemblage of States, each claiming independence and sovereignty, was to throw away the results of the Revolution. The convention finally agreed that while the Union should be endowed with adequate powers, the States should retain all powers not specifically granted, and particularly the right to regulate their own internal affairs.
[Representation of States.]
The next great question all but led to the breaking up of the convention. The New Hampshire delegate had not yet appeared, and Rhode Island was never represented in the convention; the large states had therefore a majority of one. On June 13 it was voted that the ratio of representation in both branches of the legislature should be in proportion to the population. Two days later, Patterson of New Jersey brought forward a plan satisfactory to the small States, by which the old plan of vote by States was to be retained, and the Confederation practically continued. For many days the two parties were unable to agree; the crisis was so serious that on June 28 Franklin, who was not renowned for piety, moved that thenceforward the sessions be opened with prayer. The deadlock was finally broken by the so-called Connecticut Compromise, adopted July 7: equal representation was to be preserved in the upper house, and proportional representation was to be granted in the lower.
[Representation of slaves.]
When it was proposed to levy taxes on the same basis, the Southern members objected that their negroes were not equal to freemen as producers of wealth. On July 12, the matter was adjusted by a compromise: the Southerners agreed to count slaves only at three fifths of their number, in apportioning both representatives and direct taxes. Since direct taxes have been but three times assessed in the history of the United States, the practical advantage was on the side of the North.
It was otherwise in the third difficult question. Near the end of the convention the commercial and the agricultural States came into a disagreement. New England was anxious that Congress should have power to pass Acts protecting American shipping; on the other hand, the South desired to continue the slave-trade. Pinckney declared that "South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave-trade;" and Sherman of Connecticut cynically remarked, "The slave-trade is iniquitous; but inasmuch as the point of representation was settled, he should not object." On August 24 a third compromise left to Congress the power of passing Navigation Acts, but forbade it to prohibit the slave-trade during twenty years.
64. DETAILS OF THE CONSTITUTION (1787).
These difficult points out of the way, the convention arranged the details of the new government. One of the principal minor questions was the method of presidential election. Many members inclined towards an executive council; instead, it was agreed that there should be a President elected by Congress; but almost at the last moment, on September 7, the better plan of indirect election by the people was adopted. At one time the convention had agreed that Congress should have the right of veto upon State laws; it was abandoned, and instead was introduced a clause that the Constitution should be the supreme law of the land, and powerful courts were created to construe the law.
[Simplicity of the Constitution.]
In making up the list of the powers of Congress, the convention used brief but comprehensive terms. Thus all the difficulties arising out of the unfriendly commercial legislation of States, and their institution, with foreign treaties, were removed by the simple clause: "The Congress shall have Power ... to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." The great question of taxation was settled by fourteen words: "The Congress shall have Power ... To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises."