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The Miracle of Philadelphia

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The word “miracle” was used by both George Washington and James Madison in their letters to describe the results of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In fact, this was the sentiment of most of the delegates They were so absorbed in the heated debates over the form which the Constitution was to take that when the final document was completed for signing, they were amazed at the excellence of their work. Catherine Bowen aptly uses Miracle to describe the result of the Constitutional convention. First, because of the tremendous obstacles that had to be surmounted before it could be completed. Second, because of the many compromises that make it acceptable, and finally, because the document would set the trend for free democratic governments for centuries to come.

To say the that the Confederation of states was untenable was an understatement. The nation was the laughing stock of the world. King George himself refused to deal with the Confederation because it was so unreliable, he’d rather have diplomacy with the individual states. Some states maintained independent navies to protect their commerce.
In the 1780s the government was constantly out of money and even the veterans of the revolution remained unpaid.

The national government simply had no money. When it asked for money from the states only a few gave those that did deeply resented those who did not pay. The Confederation, resting only on good faith, had no power to collect taxes, defend the country, pay the public debt, let alone encourage trade and commerce(Brown, 1986, p 5).

The need for reform was dire and urgent. Among those who championed this cause were Washington, Hamilton and Madison. During the revolution, Washington struggled to keep the Continental Army supplied in the field despite lacklustre support provided by the Continental Congress. In those days the citizens’ loyalty was still graven to the individual states and not to the Union a dangerous state of affairs for the young nation that had few friends and many enemies. Madison and Hamilton were agitating for a convention for years without success.

Among the challenges to their efforts at reform was the nature of the Thirteen States itself. The colonies broke free from the tyranny and oppression of King George and English rule. They did not want their freedom and independence abridged again. In fact Virginia was so fiercely independent that it ratified the peace treaty separately. They were not eager to replace a tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants a mile a way so to speak. The fear of another oppressive central government was strong and proved a major obstacle to strengthening it.

After all, from Maine to Florida, sovereign and independent states fought together thru six years of war. Through many hardships and woes they won defeating the most powerful empire of its day. Why fight the power of the British Empire and gain independence only to submit to taxation a powerful Congress?

In addition to the general disdain for powerful central government, they also competed for commercial rights. For example, States imposed tariffs and passports on the commerce of the other states. Little states disliked the larger states because of this as they needed the larger states’ population to provide a market for their goods. The larger states like Virginia were having trouble maintaining order in their western regions and could scarcely expect support from their smaller neighbours because of their mercantilism.

The states threw tariff restrictions on each other. To the point that money printed in Pennsylvania had no value outside of that states borders. New Jersey even had her own customs service and treated neighbouring New York as it was a foreign nation. Some states even had their own navies.

The States were so eager to protect their commercial interests also argued over navigation of their shared rivers. For instance, Maryland and Virginia two of the oldest states had a dispute over the navigation rights to the Potomac River. Lacking any reasonable recourse, they brought the matter to George Washington in his Mount Vernon Estate. When other states expressed interest in the case the meeting was moved to Annapolis in Maryland.

Another cause for concern was Shay’s Rebellion of 1786. What began as an altercation by some 2000 broke farmers protesting mortgage foreclosures and high taxes became a major threat to peace and order. The rebels were defeated by force of arms but the state of Massachusetts eventually gave in to their demands for less oppressive laws. With civil unrest in Maryland, excessively populist government in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, properties men began to feel vulnerable.

Still another obstacle was that the limited authority granted to the Convention by the Confederation Congress was to meet in convention for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation (Brown, 1986, p 24). Worse, there was no money for a Convention. The currency of many states were worthless in Philadelphia, most delegates while land rich were actually cash poor. They had to meet in secret to prevent the Convention from being influenced by populist public opinion. Powerful and influential revolutionary firebrands were opposed to the reforms. Lastly, Rhode Island did not send a representative to the convention.

With all the obstacles thrown up even before the Convention could convene it was indeed a miracle that the Convention was eventually passed. Moving forward, when the high ideals and points of view of so many intellectuals come together they would doubtless create difference of opinion. The Constitutional Convention was no different. Three of the most glaring compromises were the Slavery compromise, the great compromise and the lack of a bill of rights.

Slavery was an issue that divided the nation for years. Regrettably this issue would come to the forefront not because of the immortality of slavery but rather because slavery was an important commercial issue. The commerce in slaves was a matter debate because the delegates knew that slavery was an issue that had to reach an acceptable compromise in other to preserve the union and adopt a new constitution.

The slavery compromise started when Maryland delegate James McHenry challenged federal jurisdiction over interstate commerce and navigation as well as its power to collect taxes and imposts. He expressed his fears about the subornment of southern agricultural exports to regulation based on large state interest. After all, the agricultural slave states in the south had large African populations which up to this point were not recognized in determining the size of a state. As opposed to northern states with smaller total populations but with higher proportions of white people.

Ultimately, to salve the concern of McHenry and his supporters, a 5 to 3 Federal ratio for including slaves in the calculation for representation in the lower house was proposed in other words when computing for the population of a state Five slaves is equal to three white persons. A $10 per head maximum import tax on slaves was part of the compromise as well. This was done in exchange for eventual authority of Congress to ban the importation of slaves.
Strangely enough although covered by specific constitutional provisions the word slave is never mentioned in the constitution. Instead, the euphemism “The migration or importation of Persons” is used.

Sadly this ban which was supposed to take effect in 1808 never happened. Instead the south stood pat on its rights to have slaves. It would take the Civil War (1861-1865) to finally allow Congress to exercise its prerogative to ban importation of slaves.

The slavery debate brought forth some of the harshest argumentation from both sides of the debate. Chief prosecutors against slavery were Governor Morris of Pennsylvania and George Mason of Virginia on moral ground and due to the way it denied free working men the opportunity for employment. It was a; “nefarious institution, the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed spreading poverty broadly through society. Mason, despite owning 200 slaves and a plantation, for his part deplored “this infernal traffic” that produces the most pernicious effect on manners” “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant; they bring the judgment of heaven on a country. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when they see it performed by slaves. The Western people are already calling out for slaves if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. (Brown, 1986, p 126) “

South Caroline delegates John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney and General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney advocated slaveholding On the simplistic assertion of slaveholder interest – their stand was that heavily parroted myth that, left alone, slavery would die out on its own. In support of this they point to the example of Massachusetts and Connecticut both former slave states yet were on the verge of eliminating it from their borders. They also point to the fact that slavery was a natural element of human society since ancient times. They were adamant that they would never ratify a constitution nor join a union that abolished slavery.

The Great compromise was approved on 16 July 1787. Each State would have two members in the Senate. This offset the advantage that the more populous states gained via the proportional representation in the House of Representatives. Bowen suggests that the break in the heat wave prevalent then played a part in the breaking of this impasse. Naturally the Great Compromise was a source of jubilation for the smaller states. They considered this a great victory and were hence more willing to compromise on other matters. Several small states became stalwart supporters of the constitution because of it. Optimism for a favourable outcome soared.

The great compromise also resulted in several other favourable compromises won by the small states. The electoral power of the smallest states was doubled even trebled in the electoral college system as a result of calculating the number of electors for each state on the basis of the number of their Senators and representatives. Furthermore, in the matters of treaty approval and Presidential appointments was placed in the Sentate where the small states had great strength.

Bowen considers the Great Compromise as one of the major miracles in the Convention for two reasons. Not only did it preserve the ideal of giving proportional representation in government. It also gave the smaller states considerable power and freed them from the tyranny of the majority. As the term suggests the compromise was far from perfect. To this day small states retain considerable influence in the upper house. Given the bicameral nature of our Legislature, it is possible for these small states to advance parochial interest over those of national interest if only because each ‘small’ state comprises 1% of the senate.

The final major compromise is the lack of a bill of rights. It was a harrowing final crack in the Constitution. It did not have a bill of rights. Congress had not been given the power to overturn the Individual Bills of Rights of the States. It was also foolhardy to attempt to list all the rights of man.

However, the debate was quickly expanded to cover a Bill of Rights. Mason drafted to Virginian Bill of Rights and quickly moved to have one included in the Constitution. Eight of the Thirteen Constitutions included a bill of rights. The idea of a Bill of Rights dated back to the Magna Carta. Yet the motion was rejected unanimously. Antifederalists use this omission to pounce on the Constitution as a whole. It would be an effect argument during the ratification process.

However, there was really no opposition to a Bill of Rights. The Delegates simply saw it as unnecessary. The individual Bills of Rights of States had not been overturned. The Constitution was simply about the processes of government. It was not supposed to have the individual legal provisions. Also, the Slave States bluntly object to a Bill of rights because it would conflict with their practice of slavery. Bowen summarized this lack of a bill of rights as follows; “The framers looked upon the Constitution as a bill of rights in itself; all its provisions were for a free people and a people responsible. Why, therefore, enumerate the things that Congress must not do? (Brown, 1986, p 248)”

In spite of the obstacles, regardless of the many compromises that made it a less than perfect document the Constitution was finally signed on 17 September 1787. Today it is over Two hundred and twenty years hence it remains a hallmark of freedom and democracy, Many of its features would be copied by other states as they attempt to forge free and just societies for themselves.

Among the salient features that made the Constitution a record setter were was that it provided for the creation of a unified nation peacefully molded out of a confederation of independent states. In the history of the world, empires and large nations were built upon bloodshed and warfare. This new nation would also have a federal system of shared sovereignty. Not since the Romans and Greeks has a nation been ruled by someone other than a King or Emperor.

The Constitution was ratified by the people and would be the supreme law of the land. Sovereignty resides in the people not since the Romans and Greeks has power belong to someone other than the King. To protect this sovereignty An intricate network of checks and balances was contrived to “secure liberty,” including separation of powers – an independent judiciary with final authority over the legitimacy of legislation – and a division of authority among local, state and national governments. This system of checks and balances remains one of the most important features of government today for to do any less would leave the people at the mercy of Legislature.

Separation of church and state and a ban on religious tests for public office were included. This separation of church and state is a hotly debated issue to this day. Yet it would ensure that those who have power to govern our spiritual lives do not also govern temporal lives. The separation of church and state is also a universal feature of constitutions that appear afterwards. Finally, civilian control over the military was established. The president is now the commander in chief of the military. The primacy of civilians is another hallmark that prevents our nation from becoming a dictatorship. In fact, to this day the U.S. has not suffered from a coup’d’etat or a military take-over of government.

The constitution was indeed a miracle both due to the terrible obstacles that had to be overcome in order for it to be passed and because it would be a shinning star to guide others in their pursuit of a just and equitable society. To this day the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants, yet it is blood well spilled.


Brown, Catherine Drinker (1986) Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional
Convention May – September 1787

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