The book Decision in Philadelphia the Constitutional Convention if 1787 by Christopher and James Collier offers a unique look at the scribing of the Constitution and the events that not only surrounded it but led up to its creation. The authors take on the events and their creative writing style make the book and enjoyable and fact filled read on one of the country’s most important events. They begin with a historical look at the events that led up to the signing and a brief synopsis of the events that were occurring in the country at the time. The background that they give provides a good base for the information and allows the reader to see things through the eyes of someone living in the time.
One of the more interesting parts of the book comes early in which the author tells the reader of how there were many states that were using militias to control the events occurring in the states. In many of my previous reading there had been mention of the states controlling their own laws and being able to enforce them but I was unaware of the extent. I was also unaware that in Massachusetts that the government and the proceedings were being controlled by the merchants and the upper class. It was interesting to read about how there could be such a diverse set of governments ruling different parts of the country with virtually no centralization. When the congress was first formed and the laws were laid out there was only a requirement for the states to meet once a year in November and that put an unnecessary burden of the delegates to try and align their thinking with other states.
This theme would play itself out as the constitutional convention evolved and wore on. There were many challenges facing the country at the time that would impact the constitutional convention and the outcomes that would shape the country. One of them being that there was very poor transportation routes and that adversely affected communications. “The few interstate roads that existed were frequently nothing more than mile upon mile of mud wallow, cut by hundreds of streams, creeks, and rivers, most of which were unbridged so they had to be forded, or crossed by ferry.” (Collier, 2007) This lack of infrastructure led to many difficulties in communication and travel which meant that the diversity in the country was largely unknown to each other. The country was divided not only by the vast physical size but also by religious sects, economic differences and ethnic and language differences. It was certainly time to establish the constitution and begin to align the peoples of the country under a united set of rules and a centralized government.
James Madison was a key player in what would become the centralized idea to unite all these different pockets of civilization that had formed since the country had been settled. The authors point out that Madison though it was a good idea for George Washington not to attend these meetings because if things went sour then he could have what we equate today as plausible deniability. In other words if things went wrong then he could still possibly hold the country together as he had done in the preceding seven years. This was another fact that had not been made clear in my previous reading where it seemed more that Washington had a distain for the political side of things and was just not interested in attending the convention.
Middlekauff points out that “Persuading Washington to come had been a near thing, or seemed so, for he clung to private life after eight years of exhausting service to his country.” (Middlekauff, 2005) He did in fact attend and his presence would prove to be a driving force in the establishment of a strong government that was well equipped to lead the country forward. Madison believed that under the right circumstances that a group of people could basically be governed by a contract in which there were certain rights allowed to them and in exchange there would be a set of rules that would govern the actions of the many. A quote from Madison that I think sums up his views well was “If all men were angels, no government would be necessary…you must first enable the government to control the governed.” (Collier, 2007)
An opposing view to that of Madison’s was that of Alexander Hamilton who was a big supporter of a tier system like the one they had in England where the King and Parliament both shared power and were opposing forces to each other. He would eventually bring these ideas in front of the committee to get the balance of congress and the president to try and achieve the same balance of power. The government that he was a proponent of was one that was very similar to that of the Brits but the one major change was that everything stayed internal to the government without any outside influences.
The views of many of the for-fathers were as diverse as the areas of the country they came from. The convention provided a unique platform for all of the opposing views to bring their opinions, concerns and ideas to the table for discussion. The convention also allowed for the open sharing of ideas and somewhat of a melting pot for different theories and conjectures. Not only did this format allow for the representatives of their idea to voice and present them but it also allowed for those opposed to object and state their reasons why.
The next hat that was throw into the ring was that of Mr. Charles Pinckney who had his own ideas on the right path for the government. His ideas were based on Madison’s Virginia Plan but with some major overhauls. The most notable was the fact that the majority of the power would lie with one person and that person would hold office for a period of seven years. The person in power would then consult the congress and then a voting process would begin until a resolution was reached. While the convention never heard the full breadth of the plan, Pinckney was credited with the first official use of the terms President, house and Senate.
The convention began with the arrival of fifty five of the seventy four men that had been elected to represent their states in Philadelphia. The remainders of them had either had travel difficulties or were tied up with personal or business matters. Philadelphia had been chosen as the meeting place because it was major city with the infrastructure to support the convention and because they believed that the Quaker influence would help to quell some of the heat that was sure to be produced at the convention. Philadelphia was chosen over New York, the only other logical choice for this Quaker influence but was not without its flaws as it did boast 117 pubs and numerous underground gambling facilities. When the men met to start scripting the framework for this great country I think they choose a great spot, of course I am a little biased because it my hometown!
As with almost every meeting in which there are people of opposing views the convention did not start off on the best foot. There were arguments and opposing views and the proponents of certain ideas were unwilling to compromise. At one point it was said that Washington stood up and grabbed a handful of papers and threw them across the desk in distain for the action of the members. He had been riled up to the fact that there was little progress being made because points of contention continually were brought up and little head way was being made. ON the third day a motion was passed that if a matter had already been voted on then it was not allowed to be able to be brought up again.
Collier points out that if this had not happened that the convention would have likely collapse after a week or so. Once some of the rules had been established, we call them board precepts these days, the Father of the nation got down to business of writing the constitution and laying the foundations for the country. Had it not been for Washington’s strong leadership and battle tested personality the convention could have likely collapsed. The current structure at the time with the states having independent power would have almost certainly led to the downfall of the country and the call for the British to take back over and restore civilization. Washington wasn’t about to let that happen and on May 29th finally got the attention of his fellow Americans and got down to business!
One of the first hurdles was trying to differentiate the Constitution from the Articles of the Confederation which was the governing document of the time. A key difference was that the Confederation document declared congress a one house and the Constitution was calling for two. It was not necessarily the number of factions that was the sticking point but more how those two sides would be represented. One popular idea was to have and upper house comprised of the wealthy , more like a house of Aristocrats and a lower house which would act as the voice of the people. This idea was articulated by Governor Morris and was eventually accepted. The growing fear within the walls was that if the poor dominated the government that they would take from the rich and redistribute the wealth. The plan was to have the two houses act as a checks and balances system against each other and therefor it was seen as fair voice for all.
As the issues began to get hammered out amongst the states and their representatives one issue still loomed large and that was the actual structure of the congress. It had been agreed on that the New portion of congress would be called the House of Representatives and that the states that had a higher population would have more clout. The remaining question was whether the other side of congress, the Senate, would be structured the same of if each state would have the same pull. The headpieces for each side, James Madison and James Morris had debated this point to exhaustion and neither side nor either man was willing to give up their stand. Brown points out that “Mr. Gerry (a colleague of Mr. Wilson) did not like the election by the people….experience he said had shown that the State legislatures drawn immediately from the people did not always possess their confidence” (Brown, 2000)while Madison disagreed thinking the legislature should be comprised of the men it represents.
There were many different ideas that were brought to the table and much opposition to each point arose. The delegates went back and forth on the issue for days on end until it was finally proposed that the states have equal vote but that anything having to deal with fiscal concerns must be originated in the House so that small states could not finically burden the country. The vote was put forth and eventually was passed but Collier points out that “Historians have seen the Convention’s acceptance of equal suffrage in the Senate as a defeat for the strong Nationalists. James Madison, many years later, said that that battle was the most serious and threatening excitement of the Convention.”(Collier, 2005)
In the end the Constitutional Convention would outline many of the rules and regulations that would eventually guide this country to greatness but it was not without major contention. The ability to declare war and the rights of the people and their properties would prove to be major sticking points along the way. The side would argue their points until they were blue in the face and then comprise and strong internal leadership would forge the path.
The establishment of the Army and the funding for projects were also points which caused great distain within the ranks but eventually were worked to a point where they could accepted, then, on September 17th, Benjamin Franklin stood up and gave to James Wilson his speech. The contents of the speech basically summed up that while neither side was totally content that they had reached a compromise that everyone was happy with. He articulated that while every piece was not exactly as he would have it that the system was so close to perfect that even their enemies would be astonished.
These men worked diligently and overcame so many obstacles that it’s almost unthinkable. With the leadership and vision of men like Madison, Wilson, Washington, Franklin and Jefferson the document that governs this country was born right their in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. When you read the book Decision in Philadelphia the Constitutional Convention if 1787 by Christopher and James Collier you get unique perspective into this amazing occurrence and it is written in a way that you don’t feel as th0ugh you are reading a history book but more like you there watching this debate happen right before your eyes!
Brown, R. (2000). Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company Collier, C. Collier J.(2007) Decision in Philadelphia The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York, NY: Ballantine Books. Middlekauff, R. (2005). The Glorious Cause. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.
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