The Constitutional Convention Saved a Flailing Young Country in 1787


On This Day in American History — May 25, 1787 — The Constitutional Convention Begins

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln called it “a new birth of freedom.” Lyndon Johnson called it “[…] the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest that is sleeping in the unplowed ground.”  Herbert Hoover called it “[…] a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” 

That great experiment began on this day in 1787. 

Painting of the ratification at the constitutional convention
Howard Chandler Christy‘s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

The Constitutional Convention

During the American Revolution, the nascent United States were governed by the Continental Congress, a congress composed of states that had only as much power as people decided to give them. In 1781, they wrote down a series of principles to be ratified by the states. This was America’s first governing document, The Articles of Confederation. The articles treated each state as basically an independent nation that would cooperate with the other states in order to solve big problems such as war and natural disasters. It worked a lot like the United Nations works today.

The Congress proscribed in the articles had almost no power to force the states do anything, and every decision required unanimous consent. That meant that any single state could grind the business of the nation to a halt. Furthermore, the Congress couldn’t force states to contribute to the aforementioned wars and natural disasters. They could only ask nicely. That meant that the fledgling nation was largely undefended and unfunded. We were spiralling quickly. 

The idea of each state as an independent nation might sound somewhat silly in the 21st century, but it’s important to remember it could take weeks to travel from Georgia to New York. We can get to other countries in a few hours, and we still consider them independent nations. A place that’s a month away might as well be the moon. 

In 1787, the states decided to convene a meeting to revise the Articles of Confederation to save a nation that was quickly headed towards disaster. (We fought England again in 1812. If we’d had the Articles, we’d all be drinking Earl Grey tea right now.) However, as soon as the learned men (maybe they’ll include women in the sequel) got together, they basically all agreed that the Articles of Confederation were unsalvageable. They decided to scrap em and write a whole new constitution. 

Before any of that could begin, they had to wait for seven of the thirteen states to send their delegates, a bare majority (isn’t it wonderful what a majority can accomplish without a filibuster?). The convention was delayed by 11 days as they waited for delegates from seven states to arrive. Those delegates arrived on this day in 1787. 

Hamilton Saves The Nation

Hamilton served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, so everyone assumed he knew Washington pretty well. Somehow, rumors began to swirl around the thirteen states that George Washington would be attending the Constitutional Convention. Washington had already stated he was finished with public life and had no interest in the Convention. However, somebody was going around telling people that Washington was going to be there. 

The presence of George Washington would grant legitimacy to whatever the Convention proposed. Hamilton trekked to Mount Vernon to beg him in person to attend. It’s likely that Washington was swayed by the argument that everyone already thought he was going to attend, and he would look flaky if he backed out — backed out of a thing he’d never fronted into, but nonetheless. Nonetheless, Washington went to the Convention, and the delegates voted unanimously to elect him president of the Convention. 

Hamilton proposed a constitutional plan which consisted of an electoral college electing a senate and president who would serve for life. The population as a whole (minus enslaved folks, free black folks, poor white folks, Native Americans, and women) would elect representatives to a House of Representatives for three-year terms. He also proposed the abolition of states. It’s not clear if Hamilton seriously wanted this plan or if he was just offering it to make the existing plans seem less extreme. Either way, it wasn’t even debated, and Hamilton had very little role in shaping the Constitution. 

However, he saved the nation when he wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, a series of essays arguing in favor of ratifying the proposed Constitution. To this day, they are some of the most effective examples of reasoning and persuasion; they helped to create this shining city on a hill. 

That work began on this day in 1787.