The Constitutional Convention and debates over ratification
The Constitutional Convention
Unit 3: Learning Objective I
- [Instructor] In the United States today, we know our system of government so well that it hardly bears thinking about. We know that there's a president who's the head of the Executive Branch, there's Congress, which is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and there's the judicial branch, which has the Supreme Court as its head of a whole court system that stretches throughout the United States. But how did the United States end up with this system? We frequently forget that the Constitutional Convention which created this system we know today happened in 1787. That was more than a decade after the Declaration of Independence. So there was this 11-year plus period before the United States had its modern day constitution and during that time, fought the Revolutionary War, won in 1783, and tried out a completely different system of government called the Articles of Confederation, which we talked a little bit more about in another video. Now the Articles of Confederation had a very strong sense of limited government. In fact, you could think of the Articles of Confederation as being a little bit more like a loose confederation of states, where each state had one vote in the legislative branch, the branch that makes laws, and they had to really agree on most things, nine out of 13 for most legislation and unanimous agreement for any kind of amendments to this system. And I think it's clear why the founders first went with this system of limited government because they had just revolted against a monarchy. They thought of the states as being in what they call just kind of a league of friendship, can almost see it as being similar to the European Union today, independent nations who do some things together for foreign policy reasons and economic reasons. Now by the late 1780s, it was becoming clear that the Articles of Confederation were not working. With such a weak central government, it was really hard to get things done. They couldn't raise taxes. They couldn't raise a military. Some states were even putting taxes on the goods of other states. So in 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states, Rhode Island did not participate because Rhode Island was not a big fan of central government, came together in Philadelphia, in the same place where they had signed the Declaration of Independence, to think about how to revise the Articles of Confederation. And some very notable figures were there. George Washington is one of them. See Ben Franklin over here, and James Madison. Although some people that you might have expected to be at the Constitutional Convention were not, namely, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who were out of the country being diplomats at the time. So the delegates at the Constitutional Convention have a pretty difficult problem to solve. They want to have a stronger central government, one that can get things done, make sure the states play well together, raise armies, raise taxes, but they don't want a central government that is too strong because they just escaped from monarchy. They don't wanna recreate monarchy in the United States. So they're looking for a very delicate balance of a government strong enough to get things done but not so strong as to promote tyranny. Now even though the delegates were supposed to be revising the Articles of Confederation, some people had, in secret, been considering completely throwing out the Articles of Confederation and starting anew. But one of the biggest hurdles they had to solve was what would a new sort of legislature look like. So the Virginia delegates suggested a plan for the legislature, it's the law-making body, that would be bicameral, means two room or two house from bi, meaning two, and camera, Latin for room. And their idea was that there would be a lower house, similar to the House of Commons in English Parliament, that would be directly elected as individuals would vote for the representatives but the number of representatives that each state would get would be decided by their population. Now Virginia was the largest state by population by far and so, this plan would have worked out pretty well for them because they would have gotten the largest proportion of representatives. Small states like Delaware, and Georgia, Rhode Island, would have very few representatives indeed, comparatively. They also wanted to have an upper house, similar to the House of Lords in the British Parliament, which would be appointed by state legislatures. But just like the lower house, the number representatives would also be determined by population. Now as you can imagine, the small sates were not big fans of having representation based just on population, so they came back with a different plan. This was called the New Jersey Plan. So the little states said, "All right, the Virginia Plan "gives way too much power to the big states. "We want an equal voice in legislation." So the New Jersey Plan, much like the Articles of Confederation, gave one vote to each of the states so that the small states would have the same representation in Congress as the large states and their plan was for a single chamber or unicameral legislature. So this really wasn't much different from the Articles of Confederation at all. So how did the delegates resolve this issue of how to balance the voices of large states with large populations with small states that had small populations? Because in a situation where all states have an equal number of votes, like in the New Jersey Plan, the 60,000 residents of Delaware could have as much say as the almost 700,000 residents of Virginia. Meaning that the people who live in Delaware were in fact more powerful. But at the same time, you wouldn't want it so that people living in the larger states could get their way all the time. What if the people in Delaware had a very legitimate concern that those in Virginia didn't share? It would be impossible to get all of these states to agree, to amend, or replace the Articles of Confederation if some of them felt like their interests aren't being taken into account at all. So to solve this issue of how to weight the representation of the states, the delegates came up with what's called the Great Compromise or sometimes the Connecticut Compromise. And in a way, what they did was combine these two plans. They made a legislative branch that was bicameral, two house, with a lower and an upper house and this lower house become the House of Representatives, where each state would have representatives in proportion to their population. So states that have large populations have more representatives. States with small populations have fewer representatives. And those representatives would be directly elected by the people. Now, and this time, the people was a fairly small proportion to vote in 1790s. You had to be a white man with fairly significant property, so it wasn't full suffrage. It wasn't event full suffrage for white men, but these folks were elected by vote. And then this upper house would be the Senate. And in the Senate, each state would have two senators, regardless of their size, so that as legislation moved through Congress, first from the lower house, where it would be approved and if approved, sent to the upper house, there, all states would have an equal voice in whether legislation was passed. And in this upper house, the senators would not be directly elected but rather appointed by state legislatures. And in fact, senators were appointed into the 20th century. Now the Great Compromise wasn't the only compromise made at the Constitutional Convention. They made a number more and we'll talk more about those and about the other two branches of the government in the next video.
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