CYBERLAND UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.
University President & Professor of Political Science
NOTES ON THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787
& THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES
THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787:
WHAT IT WAS:
America's first and only Federal Constitutional
Late Spring and Summer, 1787.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Delegates elected by the state legislatures in 12
of the 13 states.
12 of the 13 states sent delegates to the
Federal Constitutional Convention.
Rhode Island did not send delegates.
The Federal Convention was called by the CONFEDERA-
TION CONGRESS, the U.S. Congress under the Articles
The Convention was called for the SOLE purpose of
drawing up and proposing amendments to the Articles
The Convention ignored its instructions from the
Confederation Congress and drew up an entirely new
constitutional document--a constitutional document
providing for a new and different scheme of national
Articles I-VII--the seven original articles of the
Constitution of the United States.
THE CONDITIONS THAT GAVE RISE TO THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787:
(1) A CENTRAL GOVERNMENT THAT WAS WEAK AND IMPOTENT:
The national government of the U.S.A. lacked a suffi-
cient grant of authority under the Articles of Confed-
Congress was too weak to deal effectively with Ameri-
ca's serious problems after the Revolutionary War:
Such problems as runaway inflation, economic
depression, and threats from foreign powers.
(2) POLITICAL INSTABILITY AND UNBALANCED GOVERNMENT IN
Many of the delegates to the Federal Constitution
Convention perceived the danger of "TYRANNY OF THE
MAJORITY" at the state level.
["Tyranny of the majority," or "simple, un-
checked democracy": unlimited rule by the
majority, or majoritarian dictatorship.]
Because of the very high levels of political conflict
within the states, delegates to the Federal Conven-
tion feared that the state governments were about to
collapse from internal dissention.
The Convention delegates feared that majoritarian
tyranny and political instability in the states
would lead to mob violence, anarchy, and civil war.
[ANARCHY: lawlessness; absence of government
and domestic order; general breakdown of law
All of this, the delegates feared, would result in
the emergence of dictatorhiip by one man or a small
clique--or, alternatively, the chaos would result in
the young American nation being so weakened it would
be subject to military conquest by one of the major
foreign powers of the period.
ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION (1781-1789):
America' first national constitution, or the first attempt
at a national constitution for the U.S.A.
The document was prepared in 1776, but was not ratified
More or less legalized the arrangements under which the
Second Continental Congress assumed governing power in
1775 and 1776.
CHARACTER OF THE UNION OF STATES CREATED BY THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION:
THE CHIEF CHARACTERISTIC--STATE SOVEREIGNTY:
The U.S.A. was a league or alliance of sovereign or
virtually sovereign states.
The states were almost completely independent
By far, the greater portion of governmental authority
remained in the states.
SCHEME OF GOVERNMENT PROVIDED FOR IN THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION:
THE U.S. CONGRESS--THE SOLE ORGAN OF GOVERNMENT SPECIFIED
IN THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION:
The Confederation Congress was a UNICAMERAL legisla-
ture--a lawmaking assembly consisting of only one
The Congress was composed of delegates chosen by the
The delegates to Congress were not chosen by
direct popular vote.
They were appointed by their respective state
The delegates to Congress were chosen for one-year
terms, but subject, at any time, to recall by the
As regards compensation for their services, the
delegates were paid by their respective states, not
by the central government.
The delegates were not independent decisionmakers.
They were bound by and voted according to
INSTRUCTIONS received from their respective
Each state had only one vote on an issue before
A state, regardless of the size of its popula-
tion, had only vote on a decision made or ac-
tion taken by Congress.
To pass a national law, a TWO-THIRDS MAJORITY VOTE
of the 13 states in Congress was needed.
The enactment of national legislation required
the approval of an EXTRAORDINARY MAJORITY--a
majority significantly larger than a SIMPLE
MAJORITY (50.1 percent of those present and
An amendment to the Articles of Confederation re-
quired the approval of all 13 states.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL POWERS OF CONGRESS:
The Articles of Confederation delegated a limited
number of powers to Congress.
Congress was granted power to--
(1) Conduct foreign relations, i.e., send and
receive diplomatic representatives and
enter into treaties and alliances;
(2) Borrow money on the credit of the United
(3) Issue bills of credit, i.e., print paper
(4) Regulate and set the standard of weights
(5) Declare and conduct war;
(6) Raise armies and build, equip, and main-
tain a navy;
(7) Requisition the states for money and
supplies, i.e., REQUEST that the states
make VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS to the
(8) Requisition the states for troops, i.e.,
REQUEST that the states lend their
respective militias to the national
Congress was limited to the powers EXPRESSLY dele-
gated to it by the Articles of Confederation.
THE NATIONAL EXECUTIVE--NO CONSTITUTIONALLY SPECIFIED
The Articles of Confederation did not provide the
central government with an executive branch, con-
stitutionally separate from and largely independent
of the legislature.
Executive offices and departments in the central
government were to be--
Created by ordinary legislation enacted by
Subordinate and accountable to Congress.
WEAKNESSES OF THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT UNDER THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION:
FINANCIAL AND ECONOMIC WEAKNESSES OF THE CENTRAL GOVERN-
Congress lacked power to--
(1) Regulate foreign and interstate commerce;
[FOREIGN COMMERCE: Trade between the
U.S.A. and foreign countries; internation-
[INTERSTATE COMMERCE: Trade among the
member states of the American Union--the
states comprising the U.S.A.]
[INTRASTATE COMMERCE: Trade carried on
within the borders of a single state.]
(2) Lay and collect taxes;
(3) Prohibit or regulate the issuance of paper
currency by the individual states.
Due to the absence of these powers in Congress and
the lack of cooperation on the part of the states,
the central government was unable to--
(1) Pay off the national debt;
(2) Establish and main a uniform currency for
the entire country;
(3) Protect the rights of parties under con-
tracts legally entered into;
(4) Establish a common system of tariffs and
customs duties for the country;
(5) Prevent each state from setting up its
own system of tariffs;
[In setting up its own system of tariffs,
a state imposed tariffs on goods from
other states as well as on foreign im-
ports. THE RESULT: Interstate commerce
(6) Successfully negotiate trade treaties with
[REASON: Since the central government
could not force the states and their in-
habitants to abide by treaties it con-
cluded with foreign governments, the cen-
tral government was unable to live up to
its international obligations--its obliga-
tions under treaties.]
[THE RESULT: America's international
trade was paralyzed.]
(7) Cope with the problems of runaway infla-
tion and economic depression.
MILITARY WEAKNESSES OF THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT:
Congress lacked important war powers.
Congress did not possess the power to FEDERAL-
IZE the state militias--i.e., the power to call
the state militias into the national military
The Articles of Confederation granted Congress
authority to REQUISITION the states for troops.
However, Congress had no means of compelling
the states to comply with congressional requi-
Each state was completely free to reject
outright or substantially reduce a con-
Moreover, Congress was unable to raise an
adequate national army or navy of volunteers,
due to the absence of a congressional taxing
These military weaknesses of the central government
existed at a time when the U.S.A. was facing serious
threats from foreign powers.
The U.S.A. faced threats from the British to
north in Canada, the Spanish and Amerindians
to the south in Florida, and the French and
Amerindians to the west. And the Atlantic
Ocean to the East was controlled by the British
The young American nation, internally divided and
militarily weak, was surrounded by enemies and poten-
STRUCTURAL WEAKNESSES OF THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT:
THE REQUIREMENT OF AN EXTRAORDINARY MAJORITY FOR
THE PASSAGE OF NATIONAL LEGISLATION:
An extraordinary majority--two-thirds of the
13 states--was required for the passage of
This made it extremely difficult for Congress
to enact national laws.
THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT'S LACK OF AUTHORITY TO ACT
DIRECTLY ON INDIVIDUALS:
The central government lacked authority to act
directly on individuals, i.e., regulate the
conduct of individuals.
Therefore, Congress could not enforce its own
Congress was dependent upon each state to en-
force national legislation within its borders.
THE ABILITY OF THE STATES TO NULLIFY ACTS OF
Each state could NULLIFY--i.e., set aside--an
act of Congress, as regards its application
and enforcement with the state's own borders.
If Congress enacted a law regulating the be-
havior of individuals, that law could not be
enforced within the borders of a given state
UNLESS the legislature of that state--
Enacted a state law making the national
law applicable to the inhabitants of the
Provided for the enforcement of the na-
tional law by the state government.
If the legislature of a state objected to a
national law regulating individual behavior,
the state legislature, by simply taking no
action at all, could prevent enforcement of
the national law within the borders of the
THE REQUIREMENT OF UNANIMOUS RATIFICATION FOR THE
ADOPTION OF CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS:
Unanimous ratification--i.e., approval by all
13 states--was required for amending or revis-
ing the Articles of Confederation.
This requirement of unanimous ratification
made constitutional change at the national
level virtually impossible.
No amendments were ever added to the Articles
At least one state could be depended
upon to object to a proposed amendment
and thereby prevent its ratification and
THE CRITICAL WEAKNESS--WHY THE U.S. CONGRESS WAS UNABLE
TO ENFORCE ITS DECISIONS:
The critical weakness of Congress, as regards its
ability or inability to enforce its decisions, lay
in the fact that Congress was dependent upon the
voluntary cooperation of the states--cooperation
which the states were free to grant or withhold at
In short, the central government functioned
at the sufferance of the states.
The postwar period was a most inopportune time for
the central government to be dependent on the volun-
tary cooperation of the states.
This was a period during which the states were
less and less inclined to cooperate.
The end of the Revolutionary War reduced the
sense of urgency that had helped unite the
states in joint cooperative action.
Therefore, the states tended to focus on their
conflicting interests, rather than on common
There were very divisive conflicts of local and
regional interests, resulting in frequent dis-
putes among the states.
Example: The New England states versus
the Deep South (Georgia and South Caro-
These disputes often prevented joint decision-
making and action in Congress to deal with the
nation's postwar problems.
THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION--POINTS ON WHICH THERE WAS SUBSTANTIAL AGREEMENT:
(1) COMMITMENT TO CONSTITUTIONALISM:
All the delegates believed in LIMITED GOVERNMENT
under a written constitution.
They all opposed UNRESTRAINED GOVERNMENT, whether by
one person, a small group, or the majority.
(2) COMMITMENT TO REPUBLICANISM:
All the delegates supported the proposition that the
U.S.A. must be a REPUBLIC.
Republican government was the only form of representa-
tive government seriuosly considered by the Federal
(3) PERCEPTION OF THE NEED FOR A NATIONAL GOVERNMENT WITH
SIGNIFICANTLY GREATER POWER:
Most of the delegates supported the Convention's de-
cision to draft and propose a constitution providing
for a national government that would--
Possess and exercise significantly greater
power than the central government under the
Articles of Confederation;
REST ON THE PEOPLE--i.e., derive its legitimate
authority directly from the individual citizens,
rather than from the state governments;
GOVERN THE PEOPLE--i.e., exercise power directly
In short, most of the delegates favored changing the
central government of the U.S.A. from an alliance or
league of virtually sovereign states into a genuine
A national government with sufficient authority
to make and enforce decisions on matters of na-
tional concern--matters of concern to the whole
(4) REALIZATION THAT THE STATES WOULD HAVE TO RETAIN A
DEGREE OF AUTONOMY:
[AUTONOMY: Partial self-government, or limited self-
None of the delegates believed that there COULD be a
total transfer of governmental authority from the
states to the national government.
With the exception of Alexander Hamilton, none of the
delegates thought that there SHOULD be a total trans-
fer of authority.
(5) REJECTION OF SIMPLE, UNCHECKED DEMOCRACY, OR STRAIGHT
The delegates were virtually unanimous in their view
Simple, unchecked democracy was a very dangerous
type of government and should be avoided;
Safeguards should be built into the American
constitutional system to prevent tyranny of the
There should be built-in restraints as a
safeguard against majoritarian dictator-
(6) DETERMINATION TO ACHIEVE A STABLE SYSTEM OF BALANCED
Most of the delegates believed in balanced government.
They wanted to construct a national government in
which no single interest or faction would dominate,
not even a majority interest or faction.
They wished to create a government in which--
There would be several largely independent power
Governmental authority would be constitutionally
divided and distributed among the power centers;
The CONCURRENCE, or CONSENT, of each of the pow-
er centers would be required for the adoption
and carrying out of major decisions on national
Each power center could, by WITHHOLDING ITS
CONSENT, VETO the policy proposals of the other
Toward the end of achieving a genuine balance of power
in the national government, the delegates favored--
(1) Some application of the principal of
"SEPARATION OF POWERS";
(2) Strong emphasis on and application of the
principle of "CHECKS AND BALANCES";
(3) STRICT LEGISLATIVE BICAMERALISM:
Most of the delegates favored--
A two-chamber (two-house) national
Giving to each of the two chambers
the power of ABSOLUTE VETO over leg-
islation favored by a majority in
the other chamber.
PURPOSE OF BALANCED GOVERNMENT:
To prevent a slim national majority from shaping
or making the decisions on controversial issues
of national public policy.
To make necessary a consensus (widespread and
substantial agreement) to decide a given policy
issue--a consensus representing all or most in-
terests within American society.
The interests represented in a given
organ of national government could
exercise its veto to protect themselves
against rival interests represented in
the other organs of government.
Governmental decisionmaking and action on
controversial issues of national policy
would be the result of political bargain-
ing and compromise among the varying and
The rights and vital interests of
any important minority within
American society could not be