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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Promise and the Difficulties of America · The Framing of the Constitution·»

The Calling of a Constitutional Convention

Hamilton and Washington Urge Reform.—The attempts at reform by the Congress were accompanied by demand for, both within and without that body, a convention to frame a new plan of government. In 1780, the youthful Alexander Hamilton, realizing the weakness of the Articles, so widely discussed, proposed a general convention for the purpose of drafting a new constitution on entirely different principles. With tireless energy he strove to bring his countrymen to his view. Washington, agreeing with him on every point, declared, in a circular letter to the governors, that the duration of the union would be short unless there was lodged somewhere a supreme power “to regulate and govern the general concerns of the confederated republic.” The governor of Massachusetts, disturbed by the growth of discontent all about him, suggested to the state legislature in 1785 the advisability of a national convention to enlarge the powers of the Congress. The legislature approved the plan, but did not press it to a conclusion.

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

The Annapolis Convention.—Action finally came from the South. The Virginia legislature, taking things into its own hands, called a conference of delegates at Annapolis to consider matters of taxation and commerce. When the convention assembled in 1786, it was found that only five states had taken the trouble to send representatives. The leaders were deeply discouraged, but the resourceful Hamilton, a delegate from New York, turned the affair to good account. He secured the adoption of a resolution, calling upon the Congress itself to summon another convention, to meet at Philadelphia.

A National Convention Called (1787).—The Congress, as tardy as ever, at last decided in February, 1787, to issue the call. Fearing drastic changes, however, it restricted the convention to “the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Jealous of its own powers, it added that any alterations proposed should be referred to the Congress and the states for their approval.

Every state in the union, except Rhode Island, responded to this call. Indeed some of the states, having the Annapolis resolution before them, had already anticipated the Congress by selecting delegates before the formal summons came. Thus, by the persistence of governors, legislatures, and private citizens, there was brought about the long-desired national convention. In May, 1787, it assembled in Philadelphia.

The Eminent Men of the Convention.—On the roll of that memorable convention were fifty-five men, at least half of whom were acknowledged to be among the foremost statesmen and thinkers in America. Every field of statecraft was represented by them: war and practical management in Washington, who was chosen president of the convention; diplomacy in Franklin, now old and full of honor in his own land as well as abroad; finance in Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris; law in James Wilson of Pennsylvania; the philosophy of government in James Madison, called the “father of the Constitution.” They were not theorists but practical men, rich in political experience and endowed with deep insight into the springs of human action. Three of them had served in the Stamp Act Congress: Dickinson of Delaware, William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, and John Rutledge of South Carolina. Eight had been signers of the Declaration of Independence: Read of Delaware, Sherman of Connecticut, Wythe of Virginia, Gerry of Massachusetts, Franklin, Robert Morris, George Clymer, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania. All but twelve had at some time served in the Continental Congress and eighteen were members of that body in the spring of 1787. Washington, Hamilton, Mifflin, and Charles Pinckney had been officers in the Revolutionary army. Seven of the delegates had gained political experience as governors of states. “The convention as a whole,” according to the historian Hildreth, “represented in a marked manner the talent, intelligence, and especially the conservative sentiment of the country.”

«·The Promise and the Difficulties of America · The Framing of the Constitution·»