Origins of a new Government. Essay on Constitution of the United States
The Constitutional Convention in 1787 was more than a simple gathering of delegates with the intention of developing a written agreement supporting the formation of a new country. This convention was a complex and intensely stressful debate involving the examination of the most equitable forms of governmental power. Some delegates sought equality of representation among all states regardless of population density while others believed it was reasonable for larger states to have power and control over lesser states. Three prominent plans emerged in the gathering to answer the question of just and fair representation: the Virginia plan, the New Jersey plan, and the Connecticut Compromise.
In addition to the question of representation, was the question of slavery and how it would affect proportional representation. Finally, there was the question of democracy in which it was asked how much power the people should have. During this convention, the Founding Fathers were primarily concerned about the amount of power America’s new government would have and what would keep one branch of the government from usurping power from the rest. According to the Federalist Papers, the Fathers found a solution—“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” (sentence 5 paragraph 3 of the Federalist Papers: No 51.). In other words, where one body of government has power, there must be another with equal power to keep all branches from overstepping their boundaries. In short, these constant debates and conflicting ideas over which form of national government was most equitable eventually culminated in the United States Constitution as we know it today.
One of the primary topics of discussion at the constitutional convention, was the question of representation. This topic of equal representation was a major concern to the Americans as was clearly seen in the American Revolution against Great Britain due to lack of colonial representation. Thus, when each of the delegates at the meeting conveyed their individual ideas, it was often heatedly debated and argued over. Overall, there were three plans which were rather popular amongst the delegates, the Virginia plan by James Madison, the New Jersey plan, written by William Paterson to counter that of Madison, and the Connecticut Compromise drafted by Roger Sherman which balanced both of the former proposals.
First, Madison wanted a bicameral legislature in which there would be two houses: a lower house and an upper house. He believed the applicants of each state should be voted on by the people of each individual state while the number of representatives for each state in the lesser house should be determined by individual state population. The upper house would also be determined by the state’s population except the candidates would be selected by each state legislature and not directly elected by the people. This “proportional representation” greatly disturbed delegates from the smaller states. William Paterson, in response to this perceived political scheme, quickly introduced the New Jersey plan.
This plan counteracted Madison by presenting a unicameral national legislature in which each state received an equal number of votes. Lastly, Roger Sherman announced his Great Compromise in which the best aspects of both plans were included, especially a bicameral legislature. The Senate (the upper house) would consist of only two senators from each state selected by the state legislatures while the House of Representatives (the lower house) would be comprised of representatives for each state—the number of said representatives would be determined by each state’s population. Candidates for each state would be selected by the state’s citizens. Ultimately, both houses in Sherman’s compromise would be identified as the legislative branch of government known as Congress.
The next topic of discussion in the undisclosed meeting was the question of slavery. At this point in history, the use of African Americans for harsh and inhumane labor was quite common in the US, especially in the Southern States. As a result, large proportions of the US population were slaves. Consequently the slaveholders believed their black servants ought to be labeled, contradictory as it sounds, “free inhabitants” in order to count them along with the rest of the population which would give more political power to the largely slave-populated states. While there were not many who disagreed with the institution of slavery in 1787, the delegates who did, mainly those from northern states, raised their voices against this injustice and proclaimed their dissatisfaction with using the term “slavery” in the United States Constitution. In resolving this predicament, the delegates used the same 3/5 compromise the Confederation Congress used in 1783. This compromise not only provided a significant tax break to slaveholders, but it also granted greater political power to states possessing more slaves. While this agreement initially appeared to be a one-sided solution, the northerners only agreed when the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banning slavery from any future northwestern states. Once the slave states were satisfied with their increase in power and the abolitionists content knowing there would be no additional slave states entering the union, the representation guideline was defined.
Finally, the major question addressed at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was the question of democracy. At this time in history, Americans were extremely sensitive when discussing ideas of governmental power and authority. Ironically, some delegates believed the government should have absolute authority over the states while others believed the people should have a significant voice in political matters. Aggressive discussions over the balance of power concluded when the delegates decided state senators would be selected by the state legislatures rather than being elected by the people. Furthermore, they took an extra step of precaution by creating the Electoral College which would be the body responsible for determining the presidential elections.
Fundamentally the United States Constitution was a product of conflict, debate and resolve. Although the Founding Fathers’ constitutional precedents have been reviewed as well as challenged over the last two hundred plus years, the basic tenets are still in place today serving to maintain a balance of governmental power. The question of equivalent representation was resolved with the Great Compromise which entailed the blueprint for the current legislative branch of American Government—Congress. In addition, the necessary parity of power between the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches of government was clearly delineated in the constitution. While each branch has occasionally attempted to find loopholes in their power restrictions and stretch the boundaries of their constitutional limits, the Founding Fathers’ intentions for ambition to counteract ambition is still in place effectively preventing the United States Government and the nation as a whole from spiraling out of control.
Corbett, John, et al. Open Stax US History. Rice UP, 2017.
Madison, James OR Hamilton, Alexander. “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” The Federalist Papers. Volume 51. Friday, February 8, 1788, page 1.