The Philadelphia Convention and the New Constitution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The first and the most obvious question for the Philadelphia or Constitutional Convention was to deal with the fundamental question of power. And the second most important question was who should control this power.

The first page of of the original American Constitution.
The Philadelphia Convention finished its work on the final draft of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Problems with the Articles of Confederation

Experience with the Articles of Confederation had certainly shown what powers a national government should not lack. It should not lack the power to levy taxes on states, or else it would never be able to raise revenue for itself. It should not lack the power to regulate commerce between the states and with foreign countries.

It should not lack the sole power to issue money, or else everyone else would do it for them. And it should not lack, as a means of enforcing the previous three, the power to maintain its own army and navy. This meant that there were at least four things that emerged right away from the experience of the Articles of Confederation that, it was clear, any new instrument of government had to contain.

Question of Checks and Balances

Once those powers were granted, once the appropriate power of a national government was agreed upon, a second issue emerged: “All right, now that we’ve identified what powers the government should have, who should control those powers? Who should control this national government?”

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The First Proposal: the Virginia Plan

A black and white portrait of Edmund Randolph.
Edmund Randolph put forward the first proposal, called the Virginia Plan, in the Philadelphia Convention. (Image: Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880)/Public domain)

The first proposal was put on the floor of the Convention only two days into its sessions, and it called for an entire junking of the Confederation Congress. As outlined by Edmund Randolph of Virginia, the Virginia Plan called for the creation of a three-part government—an executive, legislative, and judicial division.

As for the new legislature—the second of those branches of those divisions—Randolph wanted to see the national legislature be a Congress with two houses. These two houses would elect the executive and the judiciary and would have the authority to settle all questions that arose between the states.

The Flaw in the Virginia Plan

The gaping flaw in the Virginia Plan was that it did not so much strengthen the national government as it strengthened the voice of the largest states, including Virginia, within it. Both houses of Congress were supposed to be elected on the basis of the population according to the Virginia Plan.

That provoked William Patterson of New Jersey, who countered Randolph with what became known as the New Jersey Plan.

The New Jersey Plan

The New Jersey Plan had in view a legislature, a Congress, with only one house, to which each state sent an equal number of delegates. This had the power to please everyone because in this case power in Congress would be shared equally, no matter what the size of each state, no matter what the population of each state. The difficulty was that this was, after all, the basis upon which the Confederation Congress had been elected, and very few of the delegates wanted a repetition of that.

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The Compromise of the Philadelphia Convention

Nevertheless, the struggle over representation—the struggle, in other words, over who would control this new government—created an impasse that lasted in the Philadelphia Convention until July of 1787, when a great compromise was hammered out. Congress, under the terms of this great compromise, would have two houses, just as Edmund Randolph had asked. Only one house—the House of Representatives—would be elected by the people at large, though.

The other house, the Senate, would be filled, along the lines with what William Patterson had asked, by two senators elected from each state, but elected by the legislatures of the states. This was so that one house would seem to be the representative of the voice of the people in general, and the other house would be the place where the voices of the states spoke.

A Powerful Executive Sans Monarch

If this looked like a step down from Edmund Randolph’s exalted notion of a national government, the Convention more than compensated for this by creating a surprisingly powerful executive. The Continental Congress had a president, but the president of the Continental Congress was an office that involved little more than serving as the chairman of the Congress’s sessions.

Several of the state constitutions had tinkered with the notion of establishing an executive committee rather than vesting power in a single individual, like a governor. Whatever form a national executive might take, everybody wanted to avoid going to the other extreme and resurrecting the idea of a monarch for America.

These concerns made the executive designed by the Convention all the more surprising because the new Constitution would vest the entire executive power in a single person, a president. The President would have general responsibility for seeing that congressional legislation was duly executed. He would be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy in time of war and would be the general supervisor of the republic’s foreign relations, nothing like the old Chairman of Proceedings in the Confederation Congress.

Furthermore, bypassing the jealous interests of the states, the president was to be elected by the people of the United States as a whole.

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Objections to the Presidency in the Philadelphia Convention

A painting depicting the signing of Constitution.
With the final ratification of New York on July 26, 1788, a new Constitution and government were born. (Image: Howard Chandler Christy/Public domain)

This presidency struck many of the old revolutionaries as the most objectionable feature of the new Constitution. Patrick Henry protested that the tyranny of Philadelphia may be like the tyranny of George III. That might have been the fishbone that the states choked on, were it not for two concessions that were made.

The First Concession: Electoral College

First of all, the Convention amended the process whereby the president was elected so that Americans would not vote directly for the president and thus put the states on the shelf, but they would vote indirectly. Americans would vote in their states for state electors who were supposed to represent the various candidates for president. These electors would then assemble as a college, which, traditionally, means an “assembly.”

The electors would come together as an electoral college, and then they would cast votes for whichever candidate they represented. In effect, this meant that while the people voted for the president, it was the states, through the state electors, who elected him.

The Second Concession: George Washington, the New President

The other concession that made the new presidency more palatable was the unspoken assumption that George Washington, a figure of universal trust, would be the president under the new Constitution. The idea that Washington would be the first president under the new Constitution did a great deal to disarm objections to the notion of the presidency as outlined in the new document.

Some other basics of the old government were carried forward into the new one. For instance, the United States would remain a republic, one with a confederated, or federal, government. The states would not cease to exist under the new Constitution. In fact, to the contrary, they would actually retain substantial powers, including the powers to designate what civil rights their citizens could possess, and what citizenship amounted to.

The Question of Slavery

Any effort to nudge the southern states toward reconsidering the use of black slave labor was stoutly resisted. The best that Hamilton could get was an allowance that Congress be permitted to review the continuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but even then, not before 1807.

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The New Constitution

The new Constitution was, in the end, an outline, but it was an outline vast in the principles it contained. It was, without question, the most innovative political document of an age remarkable for innovative political documents.

The Constitutional Convention had created a new government in four months, constructed not of history, not of tradition, not upon race or ethnicity, but upon logical, even-handed propositions about power and politics.

Problems With the Ratification of the Constitution

The Convention finished its work on September 17, 1787, and the new Constitution was ready to go out to the states for their ratification. The Confederation Congress had specified that it would relinquish its power to a new Congress if and when the Constitution was approved by nine of the states.

The ratification, though, proved to be harder to get than expected, if only because the old revolutionaries could now greet the new Constitution on their old and familiar turf in the states.

The Federalists

The new men in the Convention, nevertheless, proved as adroit in managing the ratification of the Constitution as they had in writing it. To sweeten their public image, they took the name of Federalists as the title for their pro-Constitution group, as though they were principally concerned to keep up the identity of the United States as a federation, and pose no threat to the states.

The old revolutionaries were left with no alternative but to be branded with the negative title Anti-Federalists. That name alone meant that the opposition was halfway lost before they had even opened their mouths.

The Ratification of the Constitution

These advantages that the new men had outlined paid off handsomely, although slowly. Delaware and Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution almost at once. Massachusetts followed on February 6, 1788, the sixth of the states to ratify. By the summer of 1788, the required nine states had been lined up.

Unhappily, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island remained in the other column, and everyone knew that unless New York and Virginia embraced the Constitution, it had no hope of ever working.

However, the promise of a bill of amendments that would explicitly restrain the federal government from interfering in religion, free speech, and a free press lured Virginia to ratification.

In New York, Hamilton and Jay threatened the New York legislature with a promise that New York City would secede and join the new government as a separate state of its own unless the New York legislature ratified the Constitution.

The threat was enough. New York ratified on July 26, 1788. With that, a new Constitution and a new government had been born.

Common Questions About the Philadelphia Convention and the New Constitution

Q: What came out of the Constitutional Convention?

The Constitutional or Philadelphia Convention directly led to the creation of the Constitution of the United States.

Q: What was the purpose of the Constitutional Convention?

Its aim was to find the solution to the problems posed by the weak central government that existed under the Articles of Confederation.

Q: Why did the delegates to the Constitutional Convention decide to write a new constitution?

A new constitution was created because the Articles of Confederation led to a weak central government and political and economic turmoil.

Q: What does Constitutional Convention mean?

The Philadelphia Convention was arranged to design a government with separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

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